Cesare Prandelli's pledge when he took over for Marcello Lippi as the Italian national team coach following the 2010 World Cup was to make the Azzurri attractive, attacking and likable. He's certainly done his best, introducing an "ethical code" (players under suspension for disciplinary reasons would not be called up) and insisting on a midfield of technically gifted playmakers. The idea is for Italy to play its own version of tiki-taka, a style perfected recently by Spain.
Ditching the long-established defend-and-counter ethos for the "Spanish approach redux" is an ambitious objective -- one which, thus far, has yielded mixed results. Italy was undefeated in qualifying, but looked shaky in friendlies. The match-fixing scandal running in the background should have less of an impact than it did in 1982 and 2006, largely because few national team players are implicated, directly or indirectly. Nevertheless, it remains a distraction.
The Group C draw wasn't ideal for the Azzurri, but at least its match against Spain game gets out of the way first. And grabbing a point isn't unthinkable either, considering La Roja started slowly in 2010 and that opening group games are often tight and cagey. After that, matters should become easier against Croatia and Ireland.
Three Key Players
GK Gianluigi Buffon
The captain is back in sparkling form after an injury-hampered 2010-11 season. Given how shaky Italy's defense has looked (Prandelli is considering switching from a back four to a back three), the Azzurri need Buffon at his best to snuff out trouble. It seems crazy to think that defending, traditionally one of Italy's strengths, is now potentially its weakness. But that's where we are. And it's up to Buffon to fix things.
F Mario Balotelli
Balotelli has said he won't celebrate a goal until he scores the winner in the World Cup or European Championships, so this is one chance to see Super Mario dance. Joking aside, it's time for him to live up to his immense potential. Balotelli has strength, size, skill and personality. He just needs to be single-minded and focused, traits that he has sometimes lacked.
M Daniele De Rossi
In a midfield full of skillful passers, De Rossi is the guy who needs to contribute some steel. The Roma warrior is entering his prime and, having committed his future to the club, is free to focus on the national team. He'll have the difficult task of shielding an often fragile-looking defense.
Is Prandelli's philosophical shift for real? Will he stick with it?
Prandelli is certainly serious, which begs another question: Are these the right players for the system? One would think that this defense needs more, not less, protection. And while it's great to go out and play tiki-taka, the fact that Italy needs to "out tiki-taka" Spain in the opening match doesn't help matters. That said, Prandelli is charismatic and tough-minded. And the difficulties that Italy has withstood in the buildup to the tournament should mean that the media is slightly more likely to give him a pass early on.
Can this nutty forward line work?
Once Giuseppe Rossi went down to injury, Prandelli's hands were essentially tied. He has taken a huge leap of faith in the partnership of Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. It's not a question of ability -- both have plenty -- it's a question of personality: both have had moments of indiscipline and generally bizarre behavior, both on and off the pitch. This Italy team should create plenty of chances, but it will all be meaningless if the guys up front don't put them away.
Will Prandelli revert to the Juventus spine?
The temptation must be there. Buffon in goal, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leo Bonucci across the back, plus Claudio Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo in midfield (with De Rossi doing his Arturo Vidal impersonation) -- that would be an Italy team that looks a lot like Juve. Prandelli could then play any number of players in the wingback roles and use the Balotelli-Cassano partnership up front. This scheme would signify a deviation from his script. But at least he'd have a well-drilled team.
One area where Prandelli has stuck with Azzurri tradition is in the flexibility and breadth of the team's tactical options. He played 4-3-3 or 4-diamond-2 for much of qualifying, but could now shift to a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3. The squad is generally comfortable regardless of formation, which is a plus: Some level of tinkering is needed to mask the Azzurri's shortcomings in terms of personnel.
By Gabriele Marcotti