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FA Cup quarterfinal draw

FA Cup
By ESPN Staff

Hoping for a moment of genius

Football, and football-speak, are so densely populated by clich├ęs that you sometimes need a machete to navigate through them.

In Italy, there was a long time feeling that in order to put bums on seats and energy in the throat, the national team would be better off playing in the South, especially when opponents were from a lesser-known country - perhaps one of the many who emerged from the post-Eastern block dissolution, which created some geographical confusion (true story: the secretary of the publishing company I work for once poked her head through the door and asked us 'does Romania still exist?').

On Saturday night the San Siro crowd proved such conventional wisdom was errant when a full house of 80,000 gave Italy as much support as a team that played most of the match on the back foot could muster - and deserved.

Not that the support was all of the right kind, as the French national anthem was roundly booed: a very predictable incident, since the Italian media had been busy all week portraiting the French - especially Lassana Diarra and coach Raymond Domenech after their controversial statements on the Italians - as villains.

The development of this scenario had apparently eluded many, including TV studio commentator and former Azzurri star Marco Tardelli, who had said he was confident the crowd would respect the visitors (how out of touch with common people can commentators be?).

The crucial Euro 2008 qualification match came at the end of an unprecedented day for Italian sports. Possibly for the first time in history, all four national teams in Italy's top sports were playing meaningful matches, and the results were not pretty: although the volleyball team beat Croatia, in rugby, the Azzurri went down easily to New Zealand, in basketball they lost gallantly to Lithuania and the soccer Azzurri came up lame against France.

Not the worst result, as Italy's trip to the Ukraine next Wednesday will probably determine the Azzurri's fate more, but what was on show on the night was not particularly impressive. France always looked more confident, at one point in the first half, exchanging square passes with nonchalance in the centre of the pitch while Italy sat back waiting. That's when captain Fabio Cannavaro was seen urging his team-mates to advance a little deeper and put more pressure on the opponents.

With Luca Toni unable to recover from an injury - he will miss the next match, too - Coach Roberto Donadoni opted for a 4-3-3 formation with Pippo Inzaghi as the centre-forward, Alessandro del Piero on the left and Mauro Camoranesi on the right. Andrea Pirlo was the playmaker in the middle of the pitch, and on the right of defence Massimo Oddo, in fantastic form for Milan, was chosen ahead of Christian Panucci, who had been given a surprise recall after a three-year absence.

It has to be said Donadoni's 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 closely resembles a 4-1-4-1, as Daniele De Rossi is frequently stationed in front of the defence and Del Piero and Camoranesi track back enough to be on the same line as the remaining two midfielders, Pirlo and Rino Gattuso.

In fact, that Del Piero was out there on the left is one of the several elements of criticism that can be directed at Donadoni: as a wide player cutting in, the Juventus captain has become less and less effective against top defenders (he did manage to turn Serie B opponents last year, but that's why they're in the second division) and you just wonder if a quicker player, or possibly a true winger, would help more.

Another option, which was brought up after the match, would be pairing Del Piero with another striker, but a Del Piero-Inzaghi combination would be too lightweight, and of course Toni would be the ideal partner for the Juve captain, if he was available.

The obvious question, though, would be why is Del Piero chosen ahead of quicker players like Antonio Di Natale or last year's surprise package Fabio Quagliarella, but that's for Donadoni to answer, and it appears that sometimes Del Piero's reputation and integrity stand in the way of reporters.

Italy weren't just ineffective up front - the only meaningful attempts at goal coming from Camoranesi, Inzaghi and, yes, Del Piero - because Inzaghi was left to fend off for himself without help. The midfielders sat back in cover too long, taking more than half an hour to abandon caution and push forward, and it wasn't perhaps by accident that the chances that fell to Del Piero and Inzaghi arrived just about at that time.

With Franck Ribery in sparkling form on the right, a midfielder, usually De Rossi and that's where the 4-1-4-1 was nowhere to be seen, was needed to double up on him and help Gianluca Zambrotta, who was too occupied with the Bayern star to be able to press forward as much as he can do. That he did with more energy after that first half hour of sitting back and watching the French exchange passes, also added briefly to Italy's sparse set of threats.

Sadly, it seems Donadoni has a mountain to climb in order to gain the respect of the media and, it appears, of some in his side too.

It is not common for players to go out and criticize the tactical attitude of a team, but that's what at least two of them did after the match, albeit tiptoeing around the facts, with soft words mostly centered on the fact Italy were too cautious in their approach.

You could extend those statements and say the World Champions - such a distant memory now - were afraid of France, who were happy to play for a draw and emerge unscathed from a difficult match which is going to be followed by another important one against Scotland.

It will take a more Herculean effort from Donadoni to obtain the critics' (and Marcello Lippi's nostalgic) respect than to get his side rolling and on to Euro 2008 next month, and that's just one of the problems facing the 44-year old coach.

Italy has rarely set the world alight during qualification matches, and this theory applies to group games during the World Cup and European Championships. History, which too many seem happy to forget while venting their criticism, shows that form matters little at this stage and even in the first group phase once a team reaches the finals, but from then on it gains more and more significance, as Italy exposed in the 2006 World Cup.

At the moment, based on what was seen on Saturday night at the San Siro, the Azzurri have neither the single-mindedness to get the job done nor the confidence-creating form that lifts performances above their still precarious level of match fitness. They do have talented players, though, and a moment of genius by one of them may just be enough to see them through.

PS: There's another match-fixing scandal emerging, with a couple of Catania players involved. How tiresome.

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