Football: Don’t dismiss collective strength of Italy: Prandelli

FLORENCE, Italy - Italy may no longer possess the big name players to strike fear into the hearts of their World Cup opponents, but coach Cesare Prandelli believes their collective strength should not be dismissed.

Italy, four-time World Cup winners, are set for their 18th campaign having already qualified for next year's finals in Brazil ahead of their final two Group B qualifiers against Denmark and Armenia. The 56-year-old succeeded Marcello Lippi in the wake of Italy's humiliating first round exit three years ago in South Africa and, against all expectations, led Italy to the Euro 2012 final where they succumbed to a 4-0 humbling by Spain.

In the 15 months since then, Prandelli has won some plaudits among Italy's unforgiving pundits. However Italy, who have also come runner-up twice in the World Cup, look far from the finished article.

They have won only four of 17 friendly matches and, due to Prandelli's tinkering with personnel and tactical formations, the Azzurri at times stumbled their way towards successfully qualifying.

Seven years on from their fourth and last triumph, against France at Germany 2006, Prandelli admits Italy are no longer among the front line of favourites for next year's tournament.

But the former Fiorentina handler believes what Italy lack in big name stars they will make up for with their collective strength. "My players understand our potential very well," Prandelli said in an interview with AFP at the squad's training camp near Florence ahead of Friday's penultimate qualifier away to Denmark.

"(Goalkeeper) Gianluigi Buffon is right when he says we're in the second row of 'favourite' teams, and I agree with (defender, Giorgio) Chiellini when he says we can make up for our lack of big name stars with our great collective strength.

"If we start with this principle, I'm sure we'll have a great tournament." With the likes of Juventus 'keeper Buffon in goal and a back line made up largely of defenders from the Italian champions, Italy's back line is relatively solid.

Italy conceded only five goals in their eight qualifiers so far against Bulgaria, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Armenia and Malta. However Prandelli has yet to find contunuity with his midfield and his forward line.

Italy secured qualification last month after a come-from-behind 2-1 win over the Czech Republic in Turin, but again the hosts looked shaky. Italy went in at half-time 1-0 down after Libor Kozak's 19th minute opener, prompting Prandelli to later admit: "We certainly didn't feel like smiling in the dressing room...."

But, once more, the Azzurri rolled up their sleeves and pulled themselves free of a potentially sticky situation with goals from Juventus defender Chiellini and a penalty from Milan striker Mario Balotelli, who had missed a raft of goalscoring chances in the opening period, securing the points. After the game, Prandelli rolled out his now customary mantra. "We are a great team because we know our limits and we build on our qualities," said the Italian.

Less than eight months before his squad starts packing their bags for Brazil, Prandelli continues to keep a close eye on up and coming players. Paris Saint Germain midfielder Marco Verratti, tipped to eventually replace ageing midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo, and lively Napoli forward Lorenzo Insigne are both expected to catch the eye, if given the chance at the World Cup.

But the mantra is unlikely to change. Prandelli insists his search for a "style which complements the qualities of the players I have", is ongoing. Yet, with appearances often deceptive in the lead-up to major tournaments, he appeared not to rule out big ambitions: "I'm not going to say what we're dreaming of. All I can say is, you have to dream big."