Italy have arrived at the 20th FIFA World Cup™ in pretty much the same shape as they did at South Africa 2010, with morale high after qualifying in some style from their group and registering some notable results in the process. There is one notable difference, however. Unlike four years ago, old hands Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo are reunited and raring to go, ready to lead La Squadra Azzurra into battle.
Italy’s hopes of defending their world title at South Africa 2010 were dealt a severe blow before the tournament had even begun when their midfield maestro was ruled out with injury. More bad news was to follow when their legendary keeper had to come off at half-time of their opening match of the competition, playing no further part in it. Shorn of their two figureheads, the Italians crashed out at the first hurdle, collecting just two points from their three games.
“We had so much bad luck at the last World Cup, losing our two most important players to injury,” defender Giorgio Chiellini told FIFA.com. “It really had a negative impact on our campaign. But now that we’ve got them fit and firing again, we’re hoping to go much further, even though we’re in a tough group.”
Aside from their importance to Cesare Prandelli’s side on the pitch, the duo’s presence in Brazil also represents a psychological boost for the Italians. After all, the last time Pirlo and Buffon played together at the FIFA World Cup was on 9 July 2006, when Italy beat France on penalties to lift their fourth world title. As well as giving the men in blue an important lift, the appearance of the two old stagers is sure to arouse some unease in England's ranks when the two nations meet in Manaus in Saturday’s Group D opener.
Pirlo and Buffon are our most important players. They’ve got character and they make the whole team play.
Though eight years have passed since Italy last conquered the world, Pirlo and Buffon are playing just as well as ever, both for their club Juventus and as the leading lights in an Italy side that has recovered some of its old lustre since Prandelli’s arrival in 2010. Runners-up at UEFA EURO 2012, the Italians followed up with third place at the last FIFA Confederations Cup.
“Pirlo and Buffon are our most important players," said Chiellini. "They’ve got character and they make the whole team play, so we need to take good care of them."
That sentiment was also shared by the Juve defender’s international team-mate Claudio Marchisio: “I’ve had the privilege of playing and learning with them, mainly with Pirlo, who’s taught me a lot about positioning. They’ve been the mainstays of this team for the last four years and they’re going to be so important in a competition like this.”
The old and the new
Buffon and Pirlo are not the only Germany 2006 survivors to figure in Prandelli’s squad, with fellow Berlin heroes Andrea Barzagli and Daniele de Rossi also present, while Chiellini and Marchisio are not short of experience themselves. Their collective expertise has provided Prandelli with a solid foundation on which he has gradually rebuilt the Italy side.
While having complete faith in his veteran campaigners, the coach has also brought in some fresh blood, with front men Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne recently joining the Nazionale ranks along with defender Matteo Darmian.
Discussing his national-team overhaul with FIFA.com, Prandelli said: “It goes without saying that players like Pirlo and Buffon are essential to any coach, because they have so much quality to offer and the right attitude, but it’s also great to have the enthusiasm and creativity offered by the younger players, who’ve always dreamed of playing in the World Cup.
“They bring a little bit of exuberance to the side and they can do the unexpected. We’ve freshened up the team and that’s exactly what we’re looking for at this World Cup.”
Their morale renewed, the Italians are hoping Prandelli’s fine blend of youth and experience will help them avoid the fate that befell them in 2010 and get them off to a good start when they face familiar foes England, the side they beat on penalties in the last eight at EURO 2012. With scores to settle and a host of new faces on parade, the showdown in Manaus promises to be a different game altogether.
“Our team’s a little bit younger than it was at EURO 2012, though I think England have gone even further than us in that respect,” said Chiellini.
While English faces may be fresher in Manaus, Chiellini and Co have the satisfaction of knowing that when it comes to experience, few opponents can match what Pirlo and Buffon have to offer.