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Toni hat-trick increases doubts over Vieri and Del Piero

MILAN, Sept 8 (Reuters) - With Christian Vieri dropped and Alessandro Del Piero nursing a thigh injury, Fiorentina striker Luca Toni took his chance to establish himself as Italy's first choice striker with a hat-trick in the 4-1 win at Belarus on Wednesday.

The victory leaves Italy five points clear at the top of World Cup qualifying Group Five with two home games, against Slovenia and Moldova, to come in October.

Qualification for Germany 2006 is almost complete for Marcello Lippi's side and with Toni's goals, taking his tally to five in six appearances for Italy, the coach has less need to worry about the fitness and form of Vieri and Del Piero.

With neither of that pair guaranteed regular club starts, they may even find themselves struggling to stay in the final squad for Germany.

Vieri was a major disappointment in the European Championship in Portugal last year and had a poor season with Inter Milan last term.

His move to AC Milan on a free transfer, after being released by Inter, was viewed as an attempt to restore his reputation in time for the World Cup.

But that may be easier said than done. Vieri first has to force his way into a Milan side where European Player of the Year Andriy Shevchenko and Alberto Gilardino, Toni's strike partner in Minsk on Wednesday, are Carlo Ancelotti's first choice pairing.

Del Piero's position at Juve is even less secure.

For the opening game of the Serie A season, Juventus coach Fabio Capello paired Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Frenchman David Trezeguet and then brought on Uruguayan Marcelo Zalayeta while Del Piero was stuck on the sidelines.


Lippi certainly has no need to use players who are not featuring regularly for their club sides given the abundance of attacking options available to him.

As well as Toni and Gilardino, he can call on Udinese's Vincenzo Iaquinta and Livorno's Cristiano Lucarelli, top scorer in Serie A last season - both big strikers in the Vieri mould.

Then there is Roma's Antonio Cassano who Lippi has already made clear he considers a vital component in his plans but who was left out of September's qualifiers due to his contract problems with his club.

Presuming Cassano commits to Roma for the rest of this season and plays regularly alongside Italy's key creative force Francesco Totti then he should be back in the Azzurri set up in time for the build-up to Germany.

Lippi's choices are unusually limited in defence.

Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta are the established central defensive pairing but there is no-one in Serie A who comes close to being a risk-free replacement.

Marco Materazzi of Inter is the current back-up but he may struggle to play regularly for his club following the arrival of Argentine Walter Samuel.

There is the same problem at right back with Palermo's Cristian Zaccardo yet to make the position his own but no-one emerging as a serious challenger - a situation not helped by the fact that Juve, Inter and AC Milan all have foreign players in that position.

Only at left-back is there real choice for Lippi with Juve's Gianluca Zambrotta well covered by Fabio Grosso. One option may be to play both and move Zambrotta to the right.