As we approach the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 12, the Sports Unbiased Crew will be releasing guides to help make better sense of what you watch as the world’s best soccer players converge on Brazil this summer. Check in regularly as we preview the eight groups, 32 teams, and key players that will play an integral role in determining the next world champion.
Let’s face it. Not every team has the same chances of taking home the World Cup trophy. Australia (1500/1 odds) has far less of a chance of making it to the tournament, having been drawn with defending World Cup finalists Spain (13/2) and the Netherlands (34/1). A team like Iran (1000/1), matched against a perennial powerhouse like Argentina (9/2), would have to upset the entire balance of world football order to advance far in the tournament.
So in that spirit, let’s look at the top 12 teams with the best shot to win the preeminent championship of the beautiful game. But we’re not talking FIFA coefficients here; the real place to look for contenders is with the betting odds. (This might seem odd in light of the New York Times expose about match fixing around the 2010 World Cup… but it is not the legitimate bookmakers that have incentive to fix these matches.)
All odds provided by Unibet. Why Unibet among all possible bookmakers? Well… I’ve been partial to the company since the cycling team they sponsored received a raw deal back in 2007. And their hierarchy of teams is not appreciably different than any other. Feel free to peruse the full selection of odds from around the globe here.
7. Italy (Group D — 25/1 odds)
Italy is one of those teams that stir up images of defensive football. The reputation has been borne out of the traditional catenaccio that long defined the sport in the country, both in its national team and in Serie A. But is it really still such a fair label for the Azzurri?
In European qualifying for this year’s World Cup, the Italians were ranked in a tie for 11th in goals allowed per game over the course of the campaign. Of the nine teams to qualify directly for the tournament as the top team in their respective groups, only Germany allowed more goals than the nine Italy gave up in 10 matches. They did not lose, but they also drew four of the matches. With players like Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli, we expect the squad to score. Can they keep goals out, though, and can Italy qualify for the knockout stage out of a loaded group that includes Uruguay and England?
World Cup History
After sitting out the first World Cup in Uruguay, Italy won the 1934 title as the hosts and followed it up by successfully defending their crown in France four years later. Then the advent of World War II prevented the Italians from a shot at three in a row.
When the World Cup resumed 12 years later, in 1950, the Italians were a far different bunch from the world beaters that had dominated the 1930s. From 1950 until they reached the 1970 final against Brazil in Mexico City, Italy failed to advance out of the group stage. That 1970 final is one of the most legendary games in history, yet for Italians the sting would not be alleviated until a dozen years later. After reaching the 1978 semifinals, Italy went one step further and won the entire tournament in 1982.
Italy hosted the tournament a second time in 1990, ultimately finishing third behind West Germany and Argentina, and four years later in the United States they nearly claimed a fourth World Cup. Instead, Brazil won the honors on penalty kicks, and it would be 12 more years until before Italy returned to glory by beating France in the 2006 final in Germany.
Four years ago they…
… finished dead last in Group F, failing to win a single match against the likes of such soccer powerhouses as Paraguay, Slovakia, and New Zealand.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Mattia De Sciglio
The legendary defenses of yesteryear have devolved with the ravages of aging; gone are former stalwarts on the back line such as Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta and Alessandro Nesta. Italy has made a serious and concerted effort to churn new blood into the defense.
One of the more valuable players could prove to be fullback Mattia De Sciglio. The AC Milan regular is just 21 years old, but already he has a starting spot for the rossoneri and can play on either side of the pitch effectively. He debuted for the national team in March 2013 in a friendly against Brazil, then followed that performance up with a spot in the starting XI for the FIFA Confederations Cup.
Once considered perhaps the strongest position for Italy in its national side, fullback has become a relative weakness as of late. If Mattia De Sciglio can do his best Paolo Maldini impression this summer in Brazil, the azzurri will have a fighting chance to stave off another early exit from the World Cup and book passage to the next round.
COACH: Cesare Prandelli
Cesare Prandelli was a solid if unspectacular midfielder during his playing career. Now, since taking over for Marcello Lippi after the 2010 World Cup debacle, Prandelli has been solid if unspectacular. He has guided Italy to second place at Euro 2012, and last summer he took the Azzurri to the semifinals of the FIFA Confederations Cup held quadrennially as a test run for the World Cup host a year before the main tournament. The results seem sparkling, but they have also come erratically. Prandelli can boast 23 wins with the Italian national team; but after 50 games at the helm, that means he has also drawn 16 matches and lost 11 times. Which Prandelli will be at the helm in Brazil this summer?
Italy 23-Man Roster
|5 - Thiago Motta|
|2 - Mattia De Sciglio||6 - Antonio Candreva|
|3 - Giorgio Chiellini||8 - Claudio Marchisio||9 - Mario Balotelli|
|1 - Gianluigi Buffon||4 - Matteo Darmian||14 - Alberto Aquilani||10 - Antonio Cassano|
|12 - Salvatore Sirigu||7 - Ignazio Abate||16 - Daniele De Rosi||11 - Alessio Cerci|
|13 - Mattia Perin||15 - Andrea Barzagli||18 - Marco Parolo||17 - Ciro Immobile|
|19 - Leonardo Bonucci||21 - Andrea Pirlo||22 - Lorenzo Insigne|
|20 - Gabriel Paletta||23 - Marco Verratti|
How Far Can Italy Go?
Four years ago, Italy couldn’t make it out of a group where they were the top-seeded team and needed just one win against either Slovakia, New Zealand, or Paraguay. This time around, they’re forced to take on significantly tougher competition, which puts advancement into question. Italy should beat Costa Rica… then again, we said the same thing about New Zealand. And the other two opponents, England and Uruguay, are equally hungry to move beyond a tough Group D. I have a feeling that the growing pains will continue for Italy as the Azzurri fail to make it out of the group stage for the second straight World Cup.