Why Italy Are Genuine Contenders to Win the 2014 World Cup

Jack Alexandros Rathborn@@jackrathbornContributor IIIMay 14, 2013

VALLETTA, MALTA - MARCH 25:  Head coach of Italy Cesare Prandelli during a press conference ahead of the FIFA 2014 World Cup qualifier match between Malta and Italy at Ta' Qali Stadium on March 25, 2013 in Valletta, Malta.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

The World Cup is almost 12 months away, and Cesare Prandelli will feel that the Italian national team is on track to achieve their goal for Brazil 2014.

The goal itself might be somewhat debatable, though, as some say that Italy should always be contenders due to their rich history; they are second only to Brazil as the most successful national team of all time, winning four world titles.

Following their World Cup win in 2006, the Azzurri came back down to earth with a crash in South Africa 2010. The defending champions failed to win a game and were shamefully eliminated from a group that consisted of Slovakia, New Zealand and Paraguay, as passing to the next round was considered a mere formality prior to the tournament.

The former Fiorentina manager has attempted to revamp the squad, adding more youth to the team and finding a continuity between the youth and senior sides to enable greater development of talent.

The Milan trio of Stephan El Shaarawy, Mario Balotelli and Mattia De Sciglio are already fully integrated into the senior side at an early stage of their careers, while the side is less dependent on veterans. 

The evergreen Andrea Pirlo still remains, but players who made the 2010 squad such as Simone Pepe, Gennaro Gattuso, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Antonio Di Natale, Alberto Gilardino, Mauro Camoranesi, Angelo Palombo, Fabio Quagliarella, Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Cannavaro will certainly not be present in Brazil.

So Prandelli has completely altered the personnel, and aside from the goalkeepers, who remain the same, only Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Riccardo Montolivo and Leonardo Bonucci remain certainties to travel to successive World Cups in a year's time.

One of Italy's main weaknesses three years ago was their lack of athleticism and inability to cope when teams moved the ball quickly.

Prandelli has lately addressed this with the inclusion of players such as Andrea Candreva and Alessio Cerci, both of whom are the type to run through walls for the team and prevent the opposition from having space in the midfield, and they also enjoy time at the back to build their attacks.

Italy also lacked a real goalscorer in South Africa. Despite possessing the most prolific forwards in Serie A over the last four seasons, Marcelo Lippi never found a striker on whom he could fully depend.

Giampaolo Pazzini, Gilardino, Quagliarella and Iaquinta were a really poor bunch of goalscorers, whereas the new crop seem to be slightly better.

Pablo Osvaldo might be an enigma, but he is capable of dazzling when he is in the mood, while Balotelli has proven in the short time he has had with Milan that he is one of the best strikers in world football.

Stephan El Shaarawy is blossoming nicely, but it is undecided whether he will figure mostly as a striker or a wide man.

Youngsters such as Lorenzo Insigne and Mattia Destro should really excel at Napoli and Roma, respectively, next season, and it is important that Prandelli has identified talents such as these prematurely, giving them confidence at the early stages of their careers by ensuring that they will be in the national team manager's thoughts in the future.

While Spain and Germany appear to be favourites, Italy outclassed the latter at Euro 2012 before being taught a lesson by the former in the subsequent final.

While Spain appear to have regressed marginally, Germany will probably have improved somewhat by 2014, but Prandelli matched them up brilliantly a year ago and will be confident he can tactically outsmart Joachim Löw once more if their paths ever cross again.

Prandelli knows that Italy's group is blending together nicely and has a real opportunity at peaking at the best possible moment. Draws with outstanding opposition such as the Netherlands and Brazil prove that Italy will be capable of matching any side when they play their best.

The perception is that the Italians will develop much more over the coming months in the buildup to the tournament and will surely enter the competition as dark horses to lift the trophy.