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Next
Jul 5, 2006

Defying the scientists

Try as he might, Marcello Lippi simply cannot disguise his team's attacking attitude.

Viewers who shifted uncomfortably in their seats during Italy's matches agains Australia and Ukraine will find this hard to believe, but Tuesday's historic win over Germany in Dortmund again smuggled the concept through a series of checkpoints of cliches and preconceived ideas.

Yes, Italy were not adventurous against the Socceroos, and kept pace under control against the Ukrainians, with their lone striker set-up signalling that they were not going to take chances.

But a magnificently managed match against the Germans again showed the momentary lapses into the decades-old habit of sitting back, absorbing the opponents' attacks then springing forward with a numerical advantage were just that, lapses.

With the game on the line, Lippi sent on two strikers, Alberto Gilardino and Alessandro Del Piero, and while the latter's introduction may have had something to do with the fact penalty kicks were likely at the time, any coach who does that in a World Cup semifinal deserves praise, whatever his PR-skills - minimal - or empathy with the press - same.

Ten different players have scored Italy's eleven goals so far. Another, Zaccardo, scored the only goal the Azzurri have conceded with a spectacularly mis-hit clearance.

That hardly sounds like a team asking its back four and midfield to drop the anchor in their own half.

Italy did not dominate Germany, far from it, but apart from a few minutes early in the second half they did not look in the least intimidated by the huge crowd and playing a World Cup semi-final at the home of the hosts.

Andrea Pirlo, despite mis-hitting a few passes in the direction of Camoranesi, whom he must believe to have wheels instead of legs because he kept sending in through on impossible balls, played a great game of controlling the tempo and setting up team-mates with the simplest of passes. He often resorted to his unique skill of making it appear as if the clock is slowing down when he has the ball, protecting it from tackles and swiftly touching it away from lunges with minumum motion.

That he also made Grosso's wonderful goal by keeping his nerve on a German clearance and giving up a good chance to shoot, preferring instead to dwell on the ball and deliver it to Italy's left-back, also speaks volumes about a player who only a few years ago was described by his coach at Brescia as 'having trouble showing his hunger on the pitch because he comes from a well-off family and has not had to fight for anything'.

As for Grosso, can anyone really say Italy are too negative when its two full-backs are pushing forward all the time and Perrotta on the left, even more so than Camoranesi on the right, has never seen a forward run he doesn't fancy?

While at times Toni has looked too lonely, Lippi obviously prefers to push as many men forward from midfield as possible and in Totti - even if he's still short of full match fitness - he has the player who can win one-on-ones and create a numerical advantage in the last third of the pitch. This means you do not need to have two strikers to be offensive, just one good enough at protecting the ball and bringing teammates into play.

Going back to the start of the campaign, of course, Italy had approached the World Cup with their preferred 4-3-1-2, going back to one striker in a 4-3-2-1 for the game against the Czech Republic with Gilardino, not Toni, as Lippi's choice. 4-3-3 was adopted against Australia then Toni was again alone in the quarter-finals and semi-finals.

This approach produced five goals and seems to have further liberated the attacking instincts of Zambrotta and Grosso, 'won' the dubious, last second penalty against Australia that had saved Italy from playing extra time with one man down. The full-back pair have had more space to run into, given the absence of any semblance of traditional wingers in the squad.

They can also, and certainly did in Dortmund, take some comfort from the fact their defensive colleagues in the middle of the pitch are having a sensational campaign, with the help of Gennaro Gattuso who might have surprised superficial observers who did not know about his tactical acumen and sense of position in getting back to help.

Italy leaked some chances to Ukraine and a couple to Germany, but Cannavaro and Materazzi, who's likely to keep his place in the final after another strong performance and with Nesta struggling to recover from a muscle injury, are returning all messages to the senders.

Cannavaro's timely interventions have been a feature of the Azzurri play, although sometimes you suspect some last-ditch tackles are the product of spottily ineffective unit defending in the first place, and the fact Buffon has been magnificent in the tournament also means opponents have been able to take a few shots at goal without scoring.

Italy '06, obviously, are not the perfect team and are not going to be in the history books as the epitome of attacking football.

But their confident, assured performance in the pressure cooker of the Westfalenstadion, where they never sat back for the sake of safety-first negativity, certainly upset some odds and may even have causedd consternation among scientists; the front page headline on a magazine hanging from a hook on my train to Munich on Wednesday morning read 'Physics professor proves: we're going to be the world champions'.

Sadly for Germany, the laws of physics, just like the common law that states 'Italy, shalt play catenaccio', sometimes do not work as expected.


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