Former United winger Jules Maiorana expects a tight encounter between England and Italy tonight.
It could be said that both nations have suffered from pretty unimpressive build ups to Brazil 2014 but Maiorana feels that is par for the course with his homeland. “Italy are always useless before a major tournament anyway!”, he observed. “80 or 90% of the time, they know how to play well in a tournament and handle it when they get there. The last time England performed well enough to call a tournament a success was probably Euro 96 so if you were to look at it from a preparation point of view, history favours Italy.”
The expectation levels could not be more different. While the English press have done what they usually do – ostensibly downplay the chances to give the impression of a lowered expectation, then on the eve of the tournament build them up to unrealistic heights and then attempt to undermine their chances in the tabloids, the pressure in Italy has been fairly more straightforward. “Even though Italy normally have a bad record going in to tournaments, Cesare Prandelli has the worst record of any Italian manager in that respect,” said Maiorana. “Everyone is talking about Pirlo but if they play Veratti they’ll have a real chance. I think whoever keeps the ball best will be favourites to win but of course, in football, anything can happen, look at what’s already happened in this tournament!”.
Italy went into the 2006 World Cup as rank outsiders and ended up winning it; Jules feels it’s a position that most nations would prefer heading into the biggest show on Earth. “Everyone would love it – if you can go into it with nothing to lose it can help you immensely. Look at Croatia in the first game, nothing to lose and it really helped them. For me, they deserved a draw against Brazil. It seems like there’s a bit of a bias towards there and that would be a shame!”, said Jules.
For tonight’s game, Maiorana feels that team selection may prove the defining factor. “A month ago I watched Italy play Nigeria and man for man, I have to say that for me it’s an average Italian team. The one thing they do well is keep the ball and that’s something that England have always struggled with… that said, England have got pace in players like Sterling, and Italy don’t have that,” says Maiorana. “I know people will say we have pace in Balotelli and we do, but people call him first class and he’s definitely not that for me. He’s still very hot and cold. I would have taken Guiseppe Rossi as he’s a better player all round… look, to be fair to Balotelli, he’s been one of the better players in the friendly. If he’s on his game he can give defenders nightmares, and that’s why Prandelli will pick him. But there’s always a big but and question mark with him.”
As for Italy’s chances of progression, Maiorana feels that neither Prandelli or Hodgson will be around at the latter stages. “If either or both qualify, then even if they get to the Quarter Finals they’ll have to come across Brazil or Spain and for me that will be game over. Prandelli has always said that his aim is the Quarter Finals and anything else is a bonus… I’d have to go along with that. I saw on television someone say that you have to play above your normal ability level in order to win a World Cup, as well as luck. I agree. Grosso and Materazzi in 2006 were key for Italy… you might even say the same for Italy in 1990. That was maybe the best Italian side I’ve ever seen, with Baresi, Donadoni, Maldini, and so on… but Schillaci scored all of the goals in the tournament and after that World Cup he was rubbish! But he played better than what his ability was and it goes for anyone looking to win the tournament that they’ll probably have to have a few players doing the same.”