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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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By ESPN Staff

Donadoni finding it tough in the World Cup spotlight

A few years after replacing his mentor and former boss Adolph Rupp, who in 42 seasons as Kentucky basketball coach had achieved legendary status (not to mention four national titles), Joe B. Hall, himself eventually a title winner (1978), remarked: 'I do not want to be the coach who follows Adolph Rupp. I want to be the coach who follows the coach who follows Adolph Rupp'.

Despite his stint in the US as a player for the New York Metrostars, Roberto Donadoni has probably never heard of Joe B. Hall or other far less successful coaches who took it upon themselves to replace a legend and bring about their own downfall in the process.

But the manager of Italy probably feels that following World Cup winner Marcello Lippi was always going to be an uphill struggle anyway.

His first two meaningful matches in charge of the Azzurri have done nothing to dispel the notion anyway.

After their lacklustre and underwhelming performance at the Stade de France in what was comically referred to as a 'revenge match', one notoriously careless Italian paper's front page headline on Thursday was: 'Zidane gets his revenge'. As if...

The Azzurri are now looking up at the Group B leaders and the month or so before their next pair of matches, at home to Ukraine on October 7 and a trip to Georgia four days later, promises to be hugely interesting for train wreck aficionados.

It would be easy and cowardly to be harsh on Donadoni now for a variety of reasons.

His first match in charge, the comedy friendly against Croatia amid a background of fascist and communist chants and salutes, had a squad patched up with all available warm bodies.

The real debut against Lithuania in Naples last Saturday, saw the defence allow the visitors as many goal chances as Italy had probably given away in one month in Germany.

While on Wednesday, his embarrassing third match in Paris against a France side which appeared throughout the game to possess more speed, strength, determination and chemistry, ended in defeat and only briefly rattled the French when a typically well-taken free kick by Andrea Pirlo found Alberto Gilardino for a close range header on 20 minutes.

Indeed, Donadoni's task was always going to be of the Joe B. Hall variety (and it did not turn out bad for coach Hall, as we know).

A torrid summer which scarred the heart and soul of Italian football one more time, sending a legendary club like Juventus into the quagmire of the Serie B and allowing others like Fiorentina, Lazio and Milan to escape from the same punishment, meant all hopes were again centered on the Azzurri.

It would take unbelievable strength to take a squad containing a lot of the World Cup winners and expect them to duplicate the same fortitude and hunger they had displayed at the beginning of the summer.

Being relatively untested, like some of his newer players, Donadoni has been working hard in training and clocked up thousands of miles during training camp to watch all the Serie A teams in pre-season practice.

But his first squad for the Croatia match left observers unimpressed, and the lack of fitness of some of the stars and the unavailability of others, in particular Francesco Totti's abstaintion from the national team for a full year, meant he never fielded his preferred XI in either of the Euro 2008 qualification matches.

Some of the choices he did make were, in hindsight, puzzling, if not downright wrong. Chievo winger Franco Semioli, a good and fast player with limited international experience, never found his touch and form in Paris and it took Donadoni way too long to see that Cassano, who had been brilliant in Naples, was having a bad night.

Donadoni, who has a great wealth of tactical knowledge and has experimented with a variey of line-ups and formations in his time as a coach, ditched his preferred 4-3-3 for the game in Paris and the 4-4-2 he sent on against France much resembled the 4-4-1-1 which Lippi had used with good effect in the latter stages of the World Cup.

However, the heart and mental strength the Azzurri had shown in Germany has been nowhere to be found so far, and this of course has compounded the problems that a lack of fitness and a limited pool of players to choose from had already given Donadoni.

A perception has already started making its way within the ranks of the Italian media that events in the months of June and July were somewhat of an anomaly, that a group of players strong on motivation (although of the falsely perceived 'us against the world' variety) got almost everything right for a limited period of time and that all of this could never be duplicated under different circumstances.

But let's make it absolutely clear here that Italy deserved to win the World Cup because they managed to squeeze the most out of their chances. Great defence, an inspired midfield mixing brawn and brain and a few players who stepped up on the big stage like Fabio Grosso, helped offset the fact none of the stars who were expected to take the tournament by storm actually did.

All the glory, as Donadoni rightly snapped in replying to an ill-worded interview question, count for nothing now. In a way, it is true. Italy's performances against Lithuania and France would have been blasted by the media even if they had come after a first-round exit in Germany, but the reality is Donadoni's Azzurri are always going to be compared with the World Cup winners and are currently a long way from acquiring a shape of their own.

The acting commissioner of the Italian Federation, Guido Rossi, and his main advisor, former player Demetrio Albertini, who was instrumental in getting his former Milan team mate the job, must be wondering behind closed doors if they made the right choice.

As Donadoni hinted on Thursday on the flight back to Italy, the situation can only be fully assessed once the Serie A starts, the players climb back to a respectable level of match fitness and the memory of Berlin fades a little more.

Fair enough, and the coach's willingness to work hard and pursue different tactical avenues (a sign of indecisiveness for some) vouch for him and will help keep away the accusations that he's out of his depth on the international scene.

October 7, against the Ukraine at a Stadio Olimpico in Rome which may not be too happy to see Cassano wearing Totti's number 10 after his acrimonious exit in January, is coming up faster than you, and Donadoni, know.