IRENE, South Africa (AP) — Riccardo Montolivo worked hard to find a spot on Italy's roster. Now he's a likely pick to replace standout midfielder Andrea Pirlo in front of Italy's defense.
Pirlo injured his left calf during a friendly loss to Mexico last week and could miss the entire group phase of the tournament.
The 25-year-old Montolivo excelled in front of Fiorentina's defense this season, directing the midfield and forwards — exactly what Pirlo has been doing for years with Italy and AC Milan. It was a new role for him.
"That's the ideal position for me, where I can really take best advantage of my characteristics," Montolivo said Thursday. "I can play in the middle of a three-man midfield as well, but I'm best in front of the defense."
Montolivo played well in a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in an exhibition last weekend and could start Italy's opener with Paraguay on Monday.
Daniele De Rossi and Angelo Palombo are also options to replace Pirlo.
"There are two or three players who can replace him and we all have different characteristics," Montolivo said. "The coach will evaluate and make the decision."
Montolivo had a difficult time adapting to the international level at last year's Confederations Cup in South Africa, after which he was dropped by coach Marcello Lippi.
"After the Confederations Cup, (Lippi) called me. It was about the same time I changed positions with Fiorentina and he said he would be observing me and I gave my all to get this jersey back," Montolivo said. "I'm really motivated. This could be the most important moment of my career."
Montolivo was at the heart of the action when Fiorentina beat Liverpool twice in the group phase of this season's Champions League, dominating a matchup with one of his idols, Steven Gerrard.
"The experience in the Champions League was key," Montolivo said. "It's really important to go up against players at that level and measure yourself against the top clubs."
Montolivo plays with Italy center forward Alberto Gilardino at Fiorentina and is also familiar with Gilardino's backup, Giampaolo Pazzini, who transferred from the Tuscan club to Sampdoria during the middle of last season.
"It's comforting to have them here with me," Montolivo said.
As one of the younger members of Italy's relatively old team, Montolivo can also look forward to playing under future national team coach Cesare Prandelli, who recently agreed to a four-year deal to replace Lippi after the World Cup. Prandelli coached Fiorentina the last five years and has a special bond with Montolivo.
It's all been quite a turnaround for a player that risked not making Italy's final 23-man squad little more than a week ago.
"I was in doubt, but I knew it and I worked as hard as I could to prove myself," Montolivo said. "Things can completely turn around instantly in soccer and you should never be surprised."