The Yanks roll into Genoa on the back of two less-than-impressive victories over Venezuela and Panama, but on the back of two victories nonetheless. Say what you will about the performances, it was a nice change of pace to see the United States get a couple wins, even if they were achieved by a fringe contingent of the Men’s National Team.
As for the team in front of our heroes, a quick Wikipedia check reveals that Italy has won the World Cup one million times, and in their history are yet to have allowed a goal. Pretty impressive statistics.
But what’s the deal with the February 2012 version of the Azzurri?
Italy has really found itself under manager Cesare Prandelli, for a long time the manager of the Italian club Fiorentina. The theme with his team is balance, and his leadership has paid off for the Italian teams (no pun intended). Many in the soccer world (including myself, as well as a sizeable proportion of the Italian media) were of the opinion that the Italian national team needed a giant reboot after their disastrous 2010 World Cup and the stuttering form in the lead-up to the tourney in South Africa.
Some suggested it was time to wave goodbye to the aging heroes of the 2006 World Cup and craft a new team identity around a group of stylish young players, most of whom had been groomed in the storied Juventus youth system. But to his credit, Prandelli did not come in, clean house, and coronate Sebastian Giovinco’s generation. Instead he tapped on the breaks, worked with the best of what was still available to him, and began the patient process of rebuilding the team.
The result is a damn good team that exhibits balance with both its aging players and the on-field play. The Azzurri has its holdovers from the 2006 World Cup winning squad in: Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Daniele DeRossi, and a few others (for example, Prandelli has said he wouldn’t be opposed to giving a resurgent Francesco Totti a look for his Euro squad). This new Italy is a more forward thinking bunch, seeking to do slightly more with possession than drain the clock while waiting for either a bully-style goal or moment of Totti/Pirlo brilliance. This isn’t to say that Prandelli’s squad builds possession into attack as lethally as Spain or Germany, and Italy would never attack with reckless abandon like Argentina, but this is where the balance comes in.
Prandelli has managed to assemble a team of World Cup comprised of winning veterans, players in their primes, and younger guys like Giovince and Guiseppe Rossi, all of whom play a team-first game in which they successfully turn possession into attack, without abandoning the traditional defensive identity of the Italian national team.
Italy Player to Watch: Riccardo Montolivo
Montolivo always reminds me of Luka Modric—and not only because he also bears an uncanny resemblance to a drowned rat. Montolivo is an excellent central midfield playmaker. He’s a guy that doesn’t need to get forward in order to greatly influence his team’s offensive flow, and he has the quality in his feet to execute ambitious ideas. Sounds like the American perception of Jose Francisco Torres, am I right?
Montolivo is a Cesare Prandelli favorite, having played under the manager at Fiorentina for years. Riccardo started his international career coming off the bench for Italy as an impact sub, which is likely what he’ll do in this match, despite usually being a starter. Prandelli often pairs the slight and creative Montolivo with Daniele De Rossi, a physically stronger and more direct player. This tandem will possess the crap out of the ball, and patiently wait to break the American defense to pieces if they are given time and space all match long. Which is why our American player to watch is…
US Player to Watch: Michael Bradley
As noted above, the Italians play a possession game and employ a measured attack. They’re going to have a lot of chances to run their “half court offense,” deliberately and directly assaulting Tim Howard’s eighteen yard box looking to find the gaps. This is exactly what happened in 2009’s Confederations Cup opener when these two teams met, and the American defenders actually acquitted themselves quite well despite playing a man down due to a Redcardo Clark challenge that should have only been a yellow. The American center backs collapsed on the U.S. goal because they had to, and Jonathan Spector frustrated a lively Mauro Camoranesi all match long (yes, this actually happened, there is even video of it).
The Yanks didn’t lose that match inside their own box, they lost because Italy’s midfielders, along with Giuseppe Rossi on a couple notable occasions, were given free reign over the area between the center circle and the edge of the American area. I think De Rossi actually had a nice picnic while camped in American territory before scoring his free kick goal.
Michael Bradley, along with a midfield partner or two, will be focused on eliminating the time and space that allows a skilled team like Italy to play their pretty game from time to time, even if it’s not their primary style. Junior is also better suited than any other player on the team to immediately distributing the ball usefully after dispossessing an opponent. And these will be opponents that he’s now much more familiar with since his move to the Serie A club Chievo Verona. This match could be a showcase for Bradley, who hopes to keep in favor with Klinsmann. It pretty much has to be if the Yanks are going to have any hope of winning.
What to expect from the Yanks: Jurgen going for it. He’s trying to win this match and notch a signature win with the USMNT, which is exactly what a win in Genoa would be, even if Italy does start their A-minus squad. Sadly for Klinsy, after signaling his intent by including his best players including some guys originally slated to play for the U-23’s against Mexico, the Yanks have been hit by a rash of injury and illness. Landon Donovan’s taking his Merseyside cough back to LA, and hamstrings have forced Timmy Chandler and Jose “Gringo” Torres to pull out. Jermaine Jones will also miss out with a bum calf. Looks like it’ll be the Shea-Altidore-Dempsey show, with Bradley marshalling the midfield.
But even with a sublime performance from MB90 and his fellow midfielders, including late call-up Sacha Kljestan, Klinsmann’s team isn’t good enough to win the possession battle against Italy in Genoa—that is, not yet anyway. Once again, team building is a patient process. What I do expect, and what all US Soccer fans should be expecting, is a stronger performance than we’ve seen against elite European competition under the Klinsmann regime.
Belgium may have only beaten the Yanks 1-0 in Brussels, but the Americans was barely hanging on in the second half, exhibiting far more last ditch defending than fundamental positioning and precise execution. And while the Yanks may have won in Slovenia, they fell into the same trap that snagged the World Cup team in 2010, getting into a track meet with a team that’s coall too comfortable competing in track meets.
The best European match to build off under Klinsmann thus far may actually be the France match, but Jurgen’s charges will hope to do much more with the ball against Italy than they did in Paris.
Weather: Mild. Lovely. 55 and clear. A nice respite from the typical winter European friendly, or what we “saw” against Slovenia.
Around the Web:
Our friends at The Shin Guardian write that the rash of injuries to the USMNT normal “A Select” are presenting a host of challenges as the US seek out a result against a top flight side— but new additions like Terrence Boyd get a great chance to show they are ready for prime time in the interim. And Italy feature five Juventus starters, which would strike fear into the heart of any man who still thinks Friends is the best sitcom on television…
Leander Schaerlaeckens at ESPN writes that a road game against Italy is another part of Klinsmann’s meticulously crafted formula designed to get the US into the narrow group that comprises the global soccer elite. The fact that it’s on the road “gets players out of their comfort zone”, where Klinsmann can truly see their mettle ahead of qualifying this June.
The US beat Slovenia on the road last autumn, writes Grant Wahl. But they want more, and despite injuries– this match isn’t about individual performances. Wahl says its about trying to get a result.
Prediction: Italy 2 – 1 USA
We always score against Buffon, right? I’ll say Terrence Boyd lights the lamp as a substitute on his senior team debut. Hopefully I’m wrong about the result.
Bonus Prediction for the U23 Match: USA 3 – 2 Mexico
The American Olympic hopefuls run wild in Dallas on Wednesday night. Dilly Duka and Jared Jeffrey create the goals as they continue to make sure people following this team don’t overlook them in favor of the more prominent names on the team.
Enjoy the matches, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.