Donadoni gains seven-month respite
While preparing his charges for Wednesday evening's dead rubber against the Faroe Islands at Modena's tiny and tidy Stadio Braglia, which ordinarily hosts Serie B matches, Roberto Donadoni will have looked back on an eventful sixteen months at the helm of Italy. For much of this time, he had looked like a dead man walking, a doomed purveyor of apparently distasteful quality, constantly portrayed in pictures with drooping shoulders and hanging head.
Never mind that Italy had only lost one competitive match under him - at France in his first meaningful game - and that most of the time he was captured by a long-distance lens with that apparent disconsolate posture. He looked comfortable kicking a ball in training, hardly resisting the urge that last Friday moved him to say he was sorry he could not play at Hampden Park himself, for those were the big occasions he relished as a brilliant player for the great AC Milan sides of the late Eighties and early Nineties.
Having seen off the vigorous, fierce and skilful challenge of Scotland, Donadoni and Italy now face a far different seven months to that which had been anticipated only a few weeks ago, when their ticket to Euro 2008 seemed far from being punched. It was the same for many countries; but for Italy, being the reigning World Champions, the waiting period took on an added significance.
With a caveat: coaching Italy is not the 'Impossible Job' managing England is. Turnips are more valued in cooking recipes than in back pages - and are anyway too expensive to be wasted as a prop for Donadoni's head. Italians, as their fair-weather attachment to the national team proves, are more concerned and sanguine about their club sides, in keeping with the centuries-old tradition of hating your next-door rival much more than some distant, alien nation you only cross swords with once in a while. (A note for naive international readers: France, in the last couple of years, has acquired the full next-door rival status, not least because it fits the bill from a geographical standpoint).
Having said that, it's always open season on anyone coaching the national side, so the relief on Donadoni's face was obvious at the final whistle on Saturday. He had, after all, gained a seven-month respite from criticism. The performance in Glasgow by the Azzurri, barring a ten-minute spell in the second half when the Scots displayed their best form, swept away any suspicion that some in the squad had not taken Donadoni's appointment to heart.
Italy's coach can now look back and reflect on a difficult first year and a half in charge, most of which was spent under a cloud of suspicion, criticism and awkwardness. Donadoni himself was often wary of the media, who in turn were unimpressed by his selection methods. Not surprisingly perhaps, as at the beginning they seemed to veer too frequently from a set pattern.
Having started off by handing Antonio Cassano a starting place in the first qualifier against Lithuania, he then left him out for good; although criticism for this was misplaced: Donadoni simply reached the conclusion that Cassano was playing too little and too erratically for Real Madrid to be considered again. At the same time, his attitude towards Alessandro Del Piero was, simply, not an attitude at all, but more like an accurate evaluation of the Juventus captain's form.
Once it became obvious Del Piero was not going to be effective in the position Donadoni had designed for him (the left side of a three-man forward line which was an integral part of the 4-3-2-1 system that can be easily seen as a 4-3-3 or vice versa), the coach simply looked elsewhere.
His first choice for the position is now Antonio Di Natale, whose brace sealed a crucial 2-1 win in Ukraine in September, only a few days after the Azzurri had looked punchless at the San Siro against France. Quicker than Del Piero, Di Natale's place is now his to lose, as is Mauro Camoranesi's on the other flank, with Luca Toni, who displayed his predatory instincts in Glasgow, a fixture up front.
The midfield also looks set, with AC Milan's trio of Massimo Ambrosini, Andrea Pirlo and Rino Gattuso profiting from playing together in the Serie A and Champions League; although burnout is a danger especially for Pirlo, who rarely gets some time off for both club and country.
One of Donadoni's more surprising choices has been bringing back Christian Panucci in defence. The veteran Roma defender, reportedly not the easiest person to deal with, missed out on a World Cup medal because of a well-documented fall-out with Marcello Lippi, but has as good a chance to be in the squad for the Euro 2008 as anybody, with his versatility and ruggedness probably counterbalancing Massimo Oddo's smoother propensity at going forward.
With the possible exception of Marco Materazzi, who once fully fit should replace the improving Andrea Barzagli alongside Fabio Cannavaro in central defence, it is hard to imagine how Donadoni could have a stronger squad at the moment, although he may wish to see Alberto Gilardino reach more consistent form in the Serie A.
Wisely, the Italy manager has played down his achievements in the build-up to the meaningless Far Oer match, noting how criticism up until the Scotland match had been as over-the-top as praise has been ever since. And, we might add, had James McFadden's 81st minute shot hit the back of the net we might have been talking about a very different outlook for the Italy coach.
Whether it was down to Donadoni's touch and quiet leadership or simply to a display of the sort of spirit that had led Italy to the World Cup last year, the Azzurri's performance at Hampden Park again belied the image of a footballing nation of divers, cheaters and con artists.
Diving was certainly not a factor in referee Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez's unexplainable (read: plain wrong) decision to award Italy the stoppage-time free-kick from which Panucci headed the winner. Cheating was not instrumental in Italy's World Cup win, either, unless you consider Fabio Grosso's swiftness in going down under Lucas Neill's challenge to win a penalty in the second round against Australia.
So, the logical conclusion is that the Azzurri, as a unit, are hard-working, driven by pride and talent and hungry for more, even after a World Cup win. As such, they're much better than the league and football association they represent, the ultras that claim to support the Serie A sides and the politicians that attach themselves to their victories.
Not a bad achievement in a country whose domestic front is plagued by more problems than you can wave a search warrant at. On the morning of the Scotland match, daily La Gazzetta dello Sport carried a damning interview with Giuseppe Narducci, the chief prosecutor in the Calciopoli scandal, whose trial will begin on December 15. In Narducci's words, to which League chairman Antonio Matarese later strongly objected, '.. reality is worse than one can imagine.. little to nothing has changed in the calcio since the scandal', and 'reasonable people should simply give up following professional football'.
Still not satisfied? Read on: as La Stampa reported, a sizeable group of councilmen from Naples, each of whom receives two free tickets to Napoli's home matches, complained that they get no respect and are sometimes heckled by other spectators, despite the fact that 'our presence brings honour to sporting events?'. Stick out your tongue, blow your biggest raspberry at them and go to bed with peace in your heart. You will have done something good.