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World Cup 2014--national team generations, part III

Alexis Sanchez
Alexis Sanchez
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil a number of National Teams will be playing what may be the final major tournament with their current generation of stars. For many, this summer may be their current rosters’ last hurrahs. In an eight-part series, we analyze what the cup means to sixteen teams with special hopes for their current generation of stars. We will see how they got to the cup and are preparing for the tournament, and what their aspirations and chances may be next summer. Today we review Italy and Chile.

Italy

FIFA Rank: 4, Coach: Cesare Prandelli. Group D: with England, Uruguay, and Costa Rica. Odds of winning cup: 29-1.

FIFA World Cup history: appearances (18): won (4) 1934, 1938, 1982, and 2006. They were runners up in 1970, 1994, came in third in 1990 and fourth in 1978. They were eliminated in the quarterfinals in 1998 and in the Round of 16 in 1986 and 2002. They were eliminated in the group stage in 1950, 1054, 1962, 1966, 1974, and 2010, their worst showing (26 out of 32 teams). The Azzurri have won the FIFA Golden Ball for the best player in the finals in 1938, and 1982 and the FIFA Golden Boot in 1982 and 1990.

How they qualified for 2014: First in Europe’s Group B (paired with Czech Republic, Denmark, Bulgaria, Armenia, and Malta) with: 6-Wins, 0-Loss, 4-Ties, 22 points, 19 Goals in Favor, 9 Goals Against.

Since qualifying Italy has only lost to Argentina (1-2) and Spain (0-1), they have tied Germany at home and Nigeria in London, and they have preparatory games left (which seem more ego-boosting and team chemistry exercises) against the Republic of Ireland and Luxembourg.

The Italians have a long-standing World Cup pedigree going back to the very first cup in 1930. They are world class defenders who have played in all but two of the competitions and at four championships won are second only to Brazil’s five. They have a rhythm all their own in this tournament. They begin slow and defensively, scoring only as needed and ensuring clean slates often. Then they start picking up steam as the tourney progresses reserving their best play for the latter 3-4 games. In their last World Cup win (2006) they did not allow a goal in the Round of 16, quarterfinals, or semifinals, and only one goal in the finals (http://bit.ly/1hkRsud). This time around they hope it will be no different.

Italy are realistic about their chances, though, and no one is talking about having the firepower to win the cup, but the Azzurri are wily and experienced and their aging players still have bite in them. What hopes they have are pinned on a mix of young and old stars that just might work well for a good run in the 2014 tournament.

Italy’s roster has a number of world class players from Gianluigi Buffon, once the top goalkeeper in the world and still among the top dozen, to the perennially up and coming Mario Balotelli, to ageing midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo. It is this mix of stars and less glamorous veteran role players that make this Italian generation fun to watch and a power to contend with this summer.

Their roster includes: Juventus FC’s Buffon (http://bit.ly/PC2VOU) and PSG’s Salvatore Sirigu (http://bit.ly/1fy9Xcm) in goal, Juventus FC’s Giorgio Chiellini (http://bit.ly/1oVFHxt), Andrea Barzagli, and Leonardo Bonucci, and Napoli’s Christian Maggio in defense, Juventus FC’s Pirlo (http://bit.ly/1eCu1eb), Roma’s Daniele De Rossi (http://bit.ly/1oVGSwP), Fiorentina’s Alberto Aquilani, AC Milan’s Ricardo Montolivo, and Juventus FC’s Claudio Marchisio in midfield, and at striker AC Milan’s Balotelli (http://bit.ly/1d0DCAk), Genoa’s Alberto Gilardino, Juventus FC’s Pablo Osvaldo, Fiorentina’s Guiseppe Rossi (http://bit.ly/1ksUejT), and AC Milan’s Stephan El Shaarawy (http://bit.ly/1gs0TdF). The abundance of Juventus players makes for a stronger squad since many starting players know each other well.

Italy’s World Cup group will be somewhat challenging, but England and Costa Rica do not look to be insurmountable obstacles and beating them will suffice no matter what happens when they meet Uruguay. The South Americans though seem a stronger team and might end up on top of the group. The next round will most probably see the Italians playing Colombia, and without a fully fit and in-form Radamel Falcao the Azzurri should be favored. It will not be an easy game but if Balotelli and Buffon shine Italy moves on.

Speaking in Brazil, after the World Cup draw in December that saw his team paired with competition he thought his team could easily handle, and asked to handicap the group, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli was at a loss to put the right spin on his response. “There are three FIFA World Cup winners in the group, so it is definitely a difficult group. Our first objective [in Brazil] is to qualify from the group stage. Costa Rica will be the most difficult team to face because we don’t know them.”

No comment on how difficult it will be to play England and Uruguay who Italy do know, or any historical context provided on when those two nations last won a cup. He may well have the measure of the group’s relative minnows, but he will be surprised by the team who last won a cup in—precisely—the forthcoming finals’ venue.

Prediction: Italy will find a way to make the quarterfinals but they will then likely meet Brazil and that will be the end of the Italian’s tournament—they simply have no answer for Neymar and company playing at home. In the end this Italian generation will have done themselves proud beating some younger and perhaps stronger teams, using their mix of experience, guile, and youthful talent, to move into the final eight and carve another impressive chapter in the Azzurri’s storied romp through the World Cup.

Chile

FIFA Rank: 15, Coach: Jorge Sampaoli, Group B: with Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia. Odds of winning cup: 40-1; as compared to Spain at 7/1 and Netherlands at 25/1.

FIFA World Cup history: appearances (8): finished third as hosts in 1962, made round of 16 in 1998 and 2010, and were eliminated in the group stages in 1930, 1950, 1966, 1974, and 1982. Leonel Sanchez tied five others as the top scorer of the 1962 cup with 4 goals.

How they qualified for 2014: Third in South American qualifiers, behind Argentina and Colombia and ahead of Ecuador and Uruguay, with: 9-Wins, 6-Losses, 1-Tie, 28 points, 29 Goals in Favor, 25 Goals Against.

Chile’s World Cup history is made up of three important eras. The first two were the 1962 vintage, a team who rode the hosts’ role to a third place finish, and the second was the 1998 one, 36 years later, which tied Italy, Austria, and Cameroon to advance in second place from their group, only to meet eventual champions Brazil in the round of 16 and lose 4-1. The third vintage is the current one which began to take over in South Africa 2010 with their spectacular group play.

They were paired with Spain, again, Switzerland, and Honduras, and came in second, beating the Swiss and Hondurans 1-0 each and losing to Spain 2-1. In that game, they were down to 10 players from the 37th minute dismissal of Marco Estrada, and were behind 2-0 when they pulled one back at the 47th minute. The Spaniards held on but barely. In the round of 16 they met Brazil, again, and lost 3-0. Eight of the starters in that game will probably start for Chile in 2014.

The Chileans started slowly but played well toward the end of the 2014 qualifying tourney and that form has lasted for some time. But now, they have now begun to play at an even higher gear, peaking at the right time. In their last four preparatory friendly games after CONMEBOL qualification La Roja has won 2-0 at Wembley against England with an Alexis Sanchez brace (http://bit.ly/1o4jTRw), lost to Brazil by only 1-2 in Canada, beat Costa Rica 4-0 in Chile, and were very unlucky to lose to Germany 1-0 in Stuttgart. To most they are not at the four favorites’ level, but that doesn’t seem so clear cut, since on a good day (http://bit.ly/NfInJY) they are superb.

In this World Cup, the Chileans are maybe the 6th or 7th best team, and certainly not the FIFA 15th, or a longer odds bet than England at 28/1, Belgium at 14/1, France at 20/1, and Italy, Uruguay, and Colombia all at 22/1. The Chileans play Egypt and Northern Ireland at home as their last two preparatory games before the cup and each confederation’s member should offer a different style, type, and level of competition. Chile will be ready for June.

On their super generational roster Chile boasts: Real Sociedad’s Claudio Bravo (http://bit.ly/Or7LgK) at goalkeeper, on defense, Cardiff City’s Gary Medel (http://bit.ly/PC6q7U), Juventus FC’s Mauricio Isla (http://bit.ly/1iLRMrr), and Notttingham Forrest’s Gonzalo Jara, at midfield, Fiorentina’ Matias Fernandez, Wigan Athletic’s Jean Beausejour, Palmeiras’ Jorge Valdivia (http://bit.ly/1iLRQHO), Juventus FC’s Arturo Vidal (http://bit.ly/PC6Nzs), Atalanta’s Carlos Carmona, and Celta Vigo’s Fabian Orellana, and at striker they have Barcelona FC’s Sanchez (http://bit.ly/1nr422L), Valencia’s Eduardo Vargas (http://bit.ly/1hkSGFT), and Cagliari’s Mauricio Pinilla. This Chilean team is more than a dark horse, they will have an immediate impact on the 2014 Cup, probably eliminating a team the odds makers have placed 15 points higher on their scales.

Chilean coach Jorge Sampaoli, interviewed before his side’s impressive 2-0 victory over England at Wembley, summed up his country’s feelings and his squad’s attitude when he said: “It is safe to say that Chile are contenders. We will not allow ourselves to be modified by our opponents. We will go mano a mano against anyone.”

Prediction: In Brazil, this Chilean team will begin their journey by playing near-minnows Australia, but right after they play the current cup holders Spain and the current runners-up the Netherlands. We can assume they will beat the Aussies, but both other games are daunting. Yet if we also assume La Roja, the Orange, and the Furia Roja are each in-form come tournament time, I think Spain and Chile come out on top and in that order. Once through, Chile’s next adversary, though, will probably be Brazil, and although they will play the hosts tough I don’t think they have the firepower to keep up on Brazilian soil.

It is a pity that Chile did not get a better draw than to have to play two of the top four favorites before reaching the quarterfinals. But this generation of players has one secret, four of their number, Vidal at midfield, Medel and Isla on defense, and Sanchez in attack, will be 30 or younger come 2018. This is a good nucleus around which to build another Chilean vintage.