Italy are preparing to deploy a troupe of exciting young talents in their rainforest battle against England tonight, but coach Cesare Prandelli insists it is his old guard that holds the key to victory.
The Azzurri boast four survivors from the squad which lifted the World Cup trophy in Berlin eight years ago and, while the names Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi do not necessarily inspire inordinate levels of fear, England are totally aware of the threat posed by veterans Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon.
Shutting out Juventus’s wily pass master Pirlo from the Group D encounter in Manaus is arguably the biggest challenge facing England tonight and few men offer better protection behind a defence than 36-year-old Buffon.
Yet the Three Lions’ focus has recently shifted towards countering dangerous young striker Ciro Immobile – the Neapolitan’s 22 goals for Torino saw him crowned Serie A’s top scorer, or Capocannoniere, last season.
Paris St Germain schemer Marco Verratti and Napoli’s enterprising forward Lorenzo Insigne offer England manager Roy Hodgson further food for thought in a new-look side, but Italy coach Prandelli knows where the true quality operates in his team.
He said: “It goes without saying that players like Pirlo and Buffon are essential to any coach, because they have so much quality to offer and the right attitude.
“It’s also great to have the enthusiasm and creativity offered by the younger players, who’ve always dreamed of playing in the World Cup.
“They bring a little bit of exuberance to the side and they can do the unexpected.
“We’ve freshened up the team and that’s exactly what we’re looking for at this World Cup.”
Senior players Giorgio Chiellini and Claudio Marchisio, both team-mates of Pirlo and Buffon at Juventus, were quick to echo their coach’s assessment of the experienced duo.
“Pirlo and Buffon are our most important players,” said Chiellini.
“They’ve got character and they make the whole team play, so we need to take good care of them.”
Marchisio added: “I’ve had the privilege of playing and learning with them, mainly with Pirlo, who’s taught me a lot about positioning.
“They’ve been the mainstays of this team for the last four years and they’re going to be so important in a competition like this.”
Italy were poor at the 2010 World Cup, leaving South Africa two weeks early after failing to exit a group that contained Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, but largely redeemed themselves by reaching the final of the 2012 European Championships – in the process they eliminated England by way of a quarter-final penalty shoot-out.
Revenge is on the cards for England, who have also rejuvenated their squad with the inclusion of players such as Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw and Ross Barkley.
Chiellini feels toight’s rivals might well have diluted their squad with too many untested players, however.
“Our team’s a little bit younger than it was at Euro 2012, though I think England have gone even further than us in that respect,” said Chiellini.
Absent against England will be full-back Mattia De Sciglio after the AC Milan player hurt his left thigh in training. Club-mate Ignazio Abate is ready to deputise, while Inter Milan’s Andrea Ranocchia is on standby.
Prandelli’s other personnel concern, Verratti, recovered from flu in time to travel to the Amazon yesterday morning.
Only five players in the England squad have played in a World Cup before.
But Jordan Henderson, himself an international rookie with 11 caps, has been pleasantly surprised by how the likes of Sterling, Barkley and Shaw have adapted to international football.
The Liverpool midfielder insists England will play with no fear at this World Cup.
“You can see that a lot of the younger lads who are new on the scene have no fear,” Henderson said.
“Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw have come into the squad and you can just see how fantastic they have been in training.
“And in matches they have shown exactly what they are about. They have shown no fear. That can only be a plus.”
England were greeted by temperatures of 33 degrees Celsius when they touched down in Manaus on Thursday.
The temperature is expected to be the same today, and humidity levels are forecast to hit 60 per cent.
It is a significant increase in heat compared to the milder climes of Rio de Janeiro.