Post-match Thoughts on Italy-USA

When looking at Wednesday’s friendly in Genoa between Italy and the United States, it is important to remember that this game meant different things for each team.

Months into the Jürgen Klinsmann era, the United States was looking for a defining win against a quality opponent. Traveling on the road to Italy certainly fit this bill, with the red, white and blue winless all-time against the Azzurri heading into the match (0-7-3 against Italy, dating back to 1934).

For Cesare Prandelli’s Italy, on the other hand, the European Championship is on the horizon, and decisions need to be made for the final roster. As a result, Prandelli experimented at a handful of positions, giving Angelo Ogbonna his first career international start at center back, and playing midfielder Thiago Motta in a more advanced role than he has played in the past. 25-year-old Parma striker Sebastian Giovinco was also in the lineup, starting upfront with Alessandro Matri of Juventus.

The visitors held their own through the early parts of the match, and Italy were frustrated early on thanks to a number of instances in which Matri was only inches offsides.
In the 55th minute the US broke through for the game’s first, and ultimately only goal, with Jozy Altidore setting up Clint Dempsey, who beat Gianluigi Buffon from roughly ten-yards out.

Here are some conclusions drawn from the match:

-Friendly or not, today’s victory shows the United States is making strides in the right direction. Like the team’s run to the 2009 Confederations Cup final, the match showed the United States can hold their own against the major powers of world soccer. Now, it would be silly to suggest the United States is on par with the world’s great teams. That is far from the truth. Regardless, the win on foreign soil against an elite European opponent will go down as a historic one for the US national team.

-Up front, Italy was without its three best forwards today, with Antonio Cassano and Guiseppe Rossi still nursing injuries, and Mario Balotelli left off the roster for breaking Prandelli’s vaunted “honor code” while playing for Manchester City.  While Matri, Giovinco, and substitutes Giampolo Pazzini and Fabio Borini were not neceessarily all poor (Borini, in particular, who was making his Italy debut, had a number of bright moments), today’s loss shows the presence of these attacking players will be vital for the squad’s success in Euro 2012. Something appeared to be lacking from the Italy attack today, and it is easy to conclude the presence of these players would have made a difference. When Cassano is on his game, he can be world-class, and Rossi and Balotelli are two of Italy’s brightest young stars (Balotelli’s antics aside, he is undoubtedly a quality player). It remains to be seen whether Rossi or Cassano will be healthy for the Euros.

-No one will be confusing Thiago Motta for Roberto Baggio anytime soon. The Paris Saint-Germain player often lines up as a central midfielder, making Prandelli’s decision to use him as a trequartista somewhat of a head scratcher. Despite a couple of attempts on goal, Motta was not the playmaker the position demands, and had little impact in this regard. Playing in a deeper role that suits him better, Motta will remain a valued member of the Azzurri, but in Prandelli’s favored 4-3-1-2 formation, Italy has better options that can play behind the strikers. Giovinco, Ricardo Montolivo, and Cassano (if healthy) come to mind.

-Andrea Pirlo is still the cog that makes the Italy machine run. This has been the case for the better part of the past decade, and it is just as true today. Directing play from midfield and playing good balls, Pirlo is Italy’s “quarterback” so to speak, and is arguably the squad’s most valuable player. In today’s match, Pirlo was able to shine at times, and when Italy was at their best today, Pirlo was often the catalyst. Despite his advancing age, his presence is still vital to Italy’s success, as has been the case for years.  Consider Italy’s elimination from the last two major tournaments, Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup. The common denominator is Pirlo was missing on both occasions (suspended for the quarterfinal match against Spain in 2008, and absent due to injury for all but 34 minutes at the last World Cup).

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