By David Mosse
The Spanish have coined the term “FIFA virus” to describe the intrusive nature of international breaks, which not only disrupt the flow of domestic leagues but often result in players returning injured or too tired to represent their clubs. And with the race for Champions League spots heating up in Italy, most supporters could probably do without the upcoming national team matches against Brazil and Malta.
Nevertheless, Cesare Prandelli’s latest squad offers the opportunity to examine which clubs now boast the strongest Italian talent, and Juventus unsurprisingly accounts for nearly a third of the list. The Bianconeri are headed for a second straight Scudetto, and have become to Italy what Barcelona is to Spain, providing the backbone of the team as well as a blueprint in terms of style play.
Gianluigi Buffon remains the undisputed No. 1 in goal, while defenders Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are no-brainer selections, as Prandelli leans on a backline that has conceded just 18 Serie A goals and kept five consecutive clean sheets in the Champions League. Chiellini has looked very strong since returning from a two and a half month layoff due to injury.
The center of the park also belongs to Juventus thanks to the presence of Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, who was on target this past weekend in a 2-0 win over Bologna that maintained the Bianconeri’s nine-point lead atop the standings. Emanuele Giaccherini is a surprising inclusion given his peripheral role for the Old Lady, but Giaccherini does provide an option on the left side of midfield.
Sebastian Giovinco rounds out the Juventus contingent, though he’ll be hard-pressed to find playing time in the attack with all signs pointing to a Rossoneri strike pairing of Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy. Milan remains the in-form team in Italy after picking up a 2-0 win over Palermo on Sunday, and the Rossoneri are the second most represented club in Prandelli’s list.
Balotelli scored both goals against the Rosanero and now has seven in six games for Milan, as Massimo Allegri’s side continues to chase Napoli for second place and direct entry in next season’s Champions League. Riccardo Montolivo put forth another strong performance over the weekend and should be an automatic first choice in midfield, having scored in Italy’s last World Cup qualifier against Denmark.
Fullbacks Ignazio Abate and Mattia De Sciglio add versatility to the squad, in particular De Sciglio who is promoted from the Under-21 side after a string of mature displays in Serie A that have earned him comparisons to former Rossoneri defender Billy Costacurta. The strong Milan contingent is in marked contrast to crosstown rivals Inter whose lone representative is defender Andrea Ranocchia.
Since taking charge following the 2010 World Cup, Prandelli has done a good job of giving young players opportunities, but the former Fiorentina boss is also willing to find room for veterans in good form and this week refused to rule out a recall for Francesco Totti. The 36-year-old scored his 226th Serie A goal on Sunday in a 2-0 win over Parma, moving into sole possession of second place all-time.
The Giallorossi have taken 13 out of the last possible 15 points, moving level with Lazio for fifth place, and each capital club has two players in Prandelli’s squad. Daniele De Rossi and Pablo Osvaldo represent Roma, while goalkeeper Federico Marchetti and Antonio Candreva make the cut for the Biancocelesti who continued their wretched form with a 1-0 defeat away to Torino on Sunday.
Napoli, which boasts two representatives in Morgan De Sanctis and Christian Maggio, finally returned to the win column this past weekend with a dramatic 3-2 victory over Atalanta. Edinson Cavani found the back of the net twice, and despite recently suffering through a miserable scoring drought, the Uruguayan hitman is one player Prandelli certainly wishes he could call upon.
Elsewhere in Serie A this weekend, Alejandro Gomez scored twice for Catania, which picked up a 3-1 home win over Udinese to remain comfortably in the top half of the table. Chievo struck twice in the final minutes to claim a 2-0 victory over Pescara, virtually assuring the Delfini a place in Serie B next season, while Cagliari practically secured its safety by earning a scoreless draw away to Siena.
Some Other Thoughts:
*The clash between Sampdoria and Inter Milan was postponed due to bad weather in Genoa, which means Argentinean sensation Mauro Icardi was unable to square off against his likely future employer. The Nerazzurri were reported last month to already have a deal in place for the 20-year-old, and though both sides denied the story, the smart money is still on Icardi ending up at Inter.
*Fiorentina remains in hot pursuit of a Champions League spot and the schedule is certainly in its favour, though Vincenzo Montella’s side made hard work of a home match against Genoa, claiming a 3-2 victory thanks to an own goal by Rossoblu defender Mattia Cassani late in the second half. The Viola have won three straight league games, and are three points behind Milan with nine matches remaining.
*Maurizio Zamparini is a difficult man to keep up with. Last week’s column already included a section ridiculing the Palermo owner for his numerous managerial changes this season, and Zamparini made yet another one later that same day, sacking Gian Piero Gasperini once again. Giuseppe Sannino returns for his 2nd spell…this season, having already been sacked three rounds into the campaign.