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May 17, 2006

A welcome distraction

For the footballing folk of Italia, the World Cup may have come at the right time. The scandal engulfing Serie A and more specifically its leading club, Juventus, has besmirched the reputation of calcio, perhaps irreparably.

But maybe amid headlines of police investigations, match-fixing and transfer irregularities, there can be unity behind the Azzurri as they attempt to lay to rest a growing reputation of being the nearly men of world football.

After Sylvain Wiltord's last-minute equaliser denied them the Euro 2000 crown, they were knocked out embarassingly, though controversially, out of World 2002 by South Korea and then came Euro 2004; the manner of their exit coming off the back of a questioned 2-2 draw between Sweden and Denmark.

The look of joy on Antonio Cassano's face as he converted the winner against the Bulgarians and its rapid conversion to misery was truly evocative, but the exit of Giovanni Trapattoni's side from Portugal can be blamed on the age-old problem of not converting chances after getting into a winning position.

The coaching this time is in the hands of Marcello Lippi, who alongside Fabio Capello, his successor at Juventus, is the most decorated Italian coach around. After his sacking by Inter he was the obvious candidate to follow Trap as the old dog continued his coaching tour of European football. Lippi's approach will be little different from that which won him three chanpionships and the Champions League while at the Stadio Delle Alpi.

His teams are always hard-working, combining the typical facets of a tough defence, a pressing midfield and strikers able to hit opponents on the break. A four-man defence is always there, though Lippi varies between a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2. This may depend on the fitness of Francesco Totti or his willingness to play the ageing Alessandro Del Piero in the 'hole'.

Lippi is currently in the midst of deflecting any irregular links to scandalised Juventus former chief exec Luciano Moggi, who is alleged to have tried to tell his old employee who to pick for the national team.

Lippi has remained typically intransient to any questioning and has said that the 'quality of this squad is what makes me calm'.

His 23 contains just four Juventus players; Zambrotta, still one of the best full-backs around, Mauro Camoranesi, the adopted Argentinian who will play on the right-hand side and Alessandro Del Piero, a man linked whose misses will be forever with the failings of the last three tournaments. The participation of Juve's fourth man, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, is in doubt after his own implication in the betting scandal. The fact that Lippi can only now replace him by citing an injury means the Italians must be confident the world's most expensive keeper will be able to play.

Del Piero, going on 33, has become something of a supersub for his club, scoring one of the goals at Reggina that secured the bianconeri their 29th and most disputed title. It seems likely he will have the same role for his country. The attacking fulcrum, the playmaker, this time will be Francesco Totti, a man who has something to prove after besmirching his reputation at the last two finals tournaments.

The sending-off against the Koreans in 2002 and the disgraceful spitting incident in the opening match of Euro 2004 have ruined Totti's hopes of the type of recognition internationally that he receives nationally. And this is perhaps not the right time for him either; he is only just returned from a broken leg and strained left ankle ligaments sustained on February 19.

Totti's involvement was restricted substitute appearances as Roma missed out on the Champions League and lost in the final of the Coppa Italia. His absence derailed Roma push of 10 wins and eventually it was Fiorentina who got that 4th place, mostly as a result of the goals of Luca Toni, who seems likely to be playing up alongside the Roman.

Toni has been the Italian star of the season. His 31 goals dwarfed the tally of any of his rivals. A late developer, it is hoped he can make the type of impact that Christian Vieri, absent this time with injury, made at France 98, but was never able to repeat. Toni is certainly more media-friendly than the grumpy Monaco man, with his good looks and good hair winning the approval of the female fan.

There are hopes that as an unknown quantity to many of the other contenders, he could be this year's Toto Schilacci.

At 6'4", he has the power to trouble defenders and has the cliche of a 'good touch for a big man' to complement that. A target man then who may yet find himself partnered by Milan's Pippo Inzaghi, who has made a late charge for inclusion by Lippi. Inzaghi's predatory skills helped a creaking AC Milan to the semi-finals of the Champions League, and during the game against Lyon he looked in the form of his life.

Inzaghi and Udinese's Vincenzo Iaquinta, a suprise choice after a season which saw him fall out with his club over an unsigned contract, took the final striking places at the expense of Livorno's Cristiano Lucarelli and Cassano, whose move to Real Madrid failed to generate sufficient football to be considered by Lippi. Alberto Gilardino, Milan's megabucks buy of last summer was always a likely choice, despite being behind Lucarelli in the scoring stakes.

The midfield has long been a problem area for the Italians. Their defensive approach has recently been matched by attacking talent. Yet the supply lines between have been lacking at the last two finals. It seems likely that Andrea Pirlo, who has looked leg-weary of late, will reprise his deep-lying playmaker role with either youngster Daniele De Rossi of Roma or old Milan oppo Gennaro Gattuso as the midfield engine.

Width, as ever since the days of Bruno Conti, is not a facet the Italians are likely to choose. Zambrotta will be given licence to bomb-on while Totti may begin on the left of midfield with licence to roam. Camaronesi too has a tendency to tuck in from the right-hand side.

Defensively, the partnership of Fabio Cannavaro of Juventus and Alessandro Nesta of Milan is likely to play its third World Cup together. Nesta, even at 30, is the young man of the Milan defence these days while Cannavaro, three years his senior, has recovered from the crisis of confidence he suffered while an Inter player. Age may see them never repeating the heroic defending that got them to the final of Euro 2000 but they remain as difficult a proposition as any international forward could come across.

Their back-up will be provided by Marco Materazzi, whose presence as the sole Inter player in the 23 reflects the United Nations that is the nerazurri, and perhaps the reason why they are the eternal also-rans of the scudetto. And maybe Lippi's continuing ire at an unsuccesful spell at the San Siro. Meanwhile Palermo supply no less than three defenders - first-choice right-back Christian Zaccardo, the versatile Fabio Grosso, who can play at left-back and left wing and 24-year-old Andrea Barzagli, likely to be at centre-back ahead of the unreliable temperament of Materazzi should either of the first choicers miss out.

Goalkeeping issues, of course, remain dependent on the Buffon situation.

Lippi's team made sure that there would be an azzurri at the World Cup to continue their record of having qualified for every finals since 1958. In truth their group should have provided few scares and, despite an early defeat to Slovenia and away draws with Scotland and Norway Italy were well clear of 2nd-paced Norway.

In typical style the Italians made heavy work of the Slovenians in the game that secured progress before a late Zaccardo goal secured that 12th successive appearance.

A 4-1 friendly defeat of hosts Germany in Florence gave rise to typical optimism from a rabid Italian press but the furore has died down as the old fears set in about players being in form and fit for action.

The draw could have been kinder to Lippi since all three opponents will present a significant challenge, with the Czechs featuring a few Serie A veterans and the athletic approach of the Ghanians and Americans will always pose a problem to a side that enjoys having as much time on the ball as the Italians.

But perhaps the low-key feeling around the Italians will work in their favour this time. The last time they were under as little expectation was 1982.


  • Any thoughts on this article? Feel free to email John Brewin