As the new Serie A season pauses this weekend for national teams to begin their qualifying for Euro 2012, Italian soccer fans may feel lost not being able to watch their favorite club. To be honest, the Italy-Estonia qualifier looks less than tantalizing only two months after the exciting World Cup match-ups and high-level play. But this match (which you can see on ESPN3 on Friday) does have some compelling story lines that makes it worthwhile to watch:
- The New Azzurri Team Members: As Niccolo wrote, injuries and disappointing play have led to a number of new players being called up by Cesare Prandelli for tomorrow’s match (in addition to those called up for the Ivory Coast friendly in August). Five players received their first call-up for the Italian national team – Luca Antonelli, Cesare Bovo, Lorenzo De Silvestri, Daniele Gastaldello, and Luca Cigarini. With injuries to big names like Balotelli and Marchisio, this is a chance for some fringe players or less well-known players to make a case for their inclusion on the Euro 2012 squad going forward.
- Removing the Bad Taste of the World Cup: Leading up to the World Cup, prognosticators saw the warning signs for the Italian team and expressed trepidation about their chances – too few goals, too slow pace, too little enthusiasm. The failure to advance past group stage left a bad taste in the mouth of many Azzurri fans and tainted the Italian system. While Estonia is not a top-flight contender like Spain or France, it is a chance for the new Prandelli era to put the previous team behind them and begin the trek to the 2014 World Cup in style. A dominant or convincing win would boost morale, but a poor win, draw or loss could resurrect doubts about Italian football.
- Redemption for World Cup Players: Andrea Pirlo has the opportunity to show he is still a world class player, despite a knee injury that reduced his effectiveness in the World Cup. Giampaolo Pazzini was a major disappointment for the Azzurri in South Africa – after being put on the Italian squad because of a phenomenal ’09-’10 Serie A season, Pazzini was a dud in his World Cup appearance. Both, and other members of Lippi’s squad, can show they can still play internationally.
- The Race for #2 (or maybe #1) Keeper: With Buffon recovering, three keepers will have the chance to establish themselves as the solid backup or even the starter depending on Gigi’s health. While Marchetti already has experience playing for the Azzurri, his performance in South Africa left many fans looking for better. This could be a good chance for Sirgu or Viviano to show they are world class keepers, or Marchetti to show he is better than his World Cup performance.
- The Chance to See Estonia’s Cool Football Culture: While only in existence as an independent nation since 1991, Estonia has created for itself a pretty cool football culture. Its stadium, A. Le Coq Arena, is named after a national beer and only holds about 10,000 people for soccer matches. Their supporters are known as “the football hospital” in English and upon joining, members are given a “diagnosis” for joining the hospital. The players aren’t well known outside the country, with two (keeper Mihkel Aksalu and striker Tarmo Kink) playing in the EPL. American soccer fans will recognize New York Red Bull midfielder Joel Lindpere.