Italy has come a long way in little more than a year.
After an embarrassing first-round exit from the World Cup, new coach Cesare Prandelli has qualified the Azzurri for the European Championship with two matches to spare.
"I don't even think the biggest optimist would have thought we would qualify so easily," goalkeeper Gianliugi Buffon said after a 1-0 win over Slovenia on Tuesday secured Italy's spot at next year's tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
The match typified how the squad has embodied Prandelli's approach, which relies on three forwards often left out by previous coach Marcello Lippi: Giuseppe Rossi, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli.
Rossi and Cassano created numerous chances early on, then Giampaolo Pazzini came on and scored the winner before Balotelli nearly doubled the lead on two separate occasions.
"Rossi and Cassano did a great job at the start and then Balotelli and Pazzini _ with their anger and determination _ also had great performances," Buffon said. "That's what made us win and it shows we're a united group with a common goal."
Former Azzurri stalwarts Fabio Cannavaro and Gennaro Gattuso retired from the national team after the World Cup, and Prandelli has dropped aging fullback Gianluca Zambrotta.
The new center back tandem of Andrea Ranocchia and Giorgio Chiellini has been superb, with Italy having allowed just one goal in its eight qualifiers; the fewest of the more than 50 teams in qualifying.
"We've gone against our history a bit. Usually we suffer until the last match to qualify," said Buffon, who along with midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi are the last holdovers from the squad that won the 2006 World Cup. "This result gives us a lot of confidence.
Pazzini, who played under Prandelli at Fiorentina, has accepted his bench role with determination.
"Prandelli always kept me in consideration," he said. "I don't want to create any controversy, but I showed that I'm always ready when there's a need."