x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Plenty of options up front for Italy’s Prandelli

Rossi, Cassano and Totti could all be contenders to partner Balotelli in forward line for World Cup qualifier against Denmark, writes Ian Hawkey.

Giuseppe Rossi, right, seems to be fit and in form for Italy after nursing knee injuries for the past two years. Maurizio Degl / EPA
Giuseppe Rossi, right, seems to be fit and in form for Italy after nursing knee injuries for the past two years. Maurizio Degl / EPA

A faintly surreal atmosphere surrounds the Italy national team ahead of their last two World Cup qualifiers. Cesare Prandelli’s squad are already confirmed in Brazil next June, so Friday’s meeting with Denmark offers an opportunity for assessing how he might finesse his tactics or personnel.

While respect has to be shown to the contenders for second place in Group B, Prandelli can play a bit of fantasy football, imagining scenarios nine months ahead.

A line-up fairly close to full-strength should start in Copenhagen, although Prandelli has been encouraged by the Italian media to ask himself what “full-strength” actually signifies.

Much of the questioning has been prompted by startling individual performances last weekend by players absent from the national reckoning for a while.

One, Giuseppe Rossi, of Fiorentina, returns to consideration for the first time in two years, most of which he spent recovering from serious knee injuries.

His five Serie A goals already this term are ample justification. Prandelli is a Rossi fan and would certainly have taken him to Euro 2012 had he been fit then.

For that tournament, Antonio Cassano was used up front with Mario Balotelli, and promptly discarded afterwards. But following a bright few weeks for Parma, the sixth different Italian club of Cassano’s colourful career, calls for a return are getting louder.

He is not in the party gathered at Coverciano, the headquarters of the national squad, but has been told the door to re-entry is very much ajar. Prandelli’s eye had been caught by Cassano’s inspiring, goalscoring display against Sassuolo last Sunday.

“It was one of his best games for a while,” said Prandelli.

More emphatic, though, was the namecheck given by the Azzurri coach to Cassano’s former strike partner at Roma, Francesco Totti. Totti’s excellent contributions to the current Serie A league leaders, his two goals in the overwhelming of Inter Milan, make the topic of his possible availability, after seven years retired from international duty, unavoidable.

“If the World Cup was starting this month, I’d want him with us,” said Prandelli.

There was a note of caution, though. Totti is in his 38th year, and Prandelli learnt at the Confederations Cup that Brazil in June is sapping.

“Physical condition will be factor when I make my choices,” he said.

As if pre-empting that, Roberto Donadoni, Parma’s coach, firmly pointed out of Cassano, who has a self-confessed liking for pastries and a mixed record of diligence when it comes to physical conditioning, that “Antonio has lost 7.5 kilos coming into this season.”