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Team preview: Italy

June 3, 2010
By Gus Martins
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

The defending champions are bringing an extremely similar squad to that which won the 2006 World Cup in Germany -- nine players remain -- but that's become a cause of worry rather than optimism among many Italian fans and pundits. Though the Azzurri's roster is nothing if not experienced, many of the players are already in their early- to mid-30s and considered past their prime.

Qualification was a relative breeze, as Italy went unbeaten and outscored opponents 18-7. But critics will point to the Azzurri's performances in last summer's Confederations Cup, when a lethargic and uninspired Italian team underperformed, suffering a 3-0 rout by Brazil and then losing to Egypt to drop out in the first round. The 2008 European Championship was another disappointment, when the club fell out in the quarterfinals to eventual champions Spain (on penalty kicks, to be fair).

Nevertheless, Italy remains one of the strongest competitors in the World Cup field, and its résumé alone strikes fear into opponents' hearts. The Azzurri should have no problem progressing into the second round and, to most, anything other than a run to the semifinals would be considered a massive disappointment.

Coach: Marcello Lippi

Already a World Cup-winning mentor, Lippi's résumé should be enough to back up his sometimes stubborn tactics and decision-making. Known for creating a harmonious locker room and for his tremendous tactical vision, Lippi is a born winner, having performed on every stage of club and country football.

But he might just be overplaying his hand this time, perhaps showing loyalty to many longtime stalwarts. His decisions to leave out younger, more dynamic players has been questioned by many, but he has stood by his allegiances. Lippi will step down from the Italy post (for the second time) after this World Cup, and winning a second consecutive title would do quite a bit to redeem his often-shaky reputation in his homeland.

Style of play

The Italians never throw caution to the wind. Though capable of producing offense when needed, they are at the core defensive-oriented and pragmatic, with a pressing midfield that takes pressure off the back four. The core of the defense from 2006 remains and will be expected to put up a similarly impressive front. The questions come into the attack, where Italy lacks a truly world-class striker. Lippi's roster seems to suggest he'll play one central forward up top who can receive long balls from a three-man midfield and two supporting attackers.

Players to watch

1. Gigi Buffon. When fit, Buffon is one of the best goalkeepers in the world, if not the sole holder of that title. Italy's No. 1 for the past decade, Buffon was one of the biggest reasons the Azzurri won the title in 2006 and will be looking to help his squad repeat. And after several hard years with Juventus, Buffon is coming off a successful individual season just in time to hit the world stage.

2. Giorgio Chiellini. The Juventus defender has emerged as part Fabio Cannavaro, part Marco Materazzi -- the 26-year-old has become one of Italy's strongest leaders on the backline and takes over the "hard man" role for Materazzi, to boot. Several impressive campaigns for Juventus in recent years further his stronghold on a spot in the defense.

3. Daniele de Rossi. Nicknamed Capitan Futuro because Italian fans are so sure he will one day lead the country's squad, de Rossi could be a key figure in South Africa. A two-way midfielder who runs the field, creates for teammates and puts his stamp on the game, he could well be one of the tournament's revelations.

Who's hot

Antonio Di Natale. The unfancied Udinese striker was on fire this season, scoring a Serie A-high 29 goals. Though he spent much of his career on the fringe of the Italian national team, he played in seven games during Italy's qualification this time around.

Who's not

Gianluca Zambrotta. The 33-year-old defender -- a member of the World Cup All-Star team in 2006 -- has had a stop-start season at AC Milan and could struggle to return to the form that made him famous in Germany. Many fans had hoped he'd be left off the roster altogether, but he likely remains the first-choice right back.

Three key questions

1. Can the team hold up through a grueling month-long tournament? The last time the Italians played in an on-site tournament, they were thrashed and embarrassed in the Confederations Cup. Particularly as their star players age, keeping up with the pace of a tournament such as the World Cup will become harder and harder.

2. How will the attack shape up? Lippi has been crucified in the media for excluding younger players such as Antonio Cassano or Mario Balotelli. It will be up to the strikers who remain, such as Di Natale or Alberto Gilardino, to save Lippi's reputation and put up the numbers for the Azzurri.

3. Can de Rossi lead the midfield? Though Cannavaro and Chiellini are more than adequate anchors in the backline, it will be up to Capitan Futuro to lead the midfield and attack. With many of the offensive players relatively new to the Italian squad, de Rossi's leadership could prove crucial in maintaining Lippi's cohesive structure.

Projected lineup

G Gianluigi Buffon, Juventus
D Domenico Criscito, Genoa
D Giorgio Chiellini, Juventus
D Fabio Cannavaro, Juventus
D Gianluca Zambrotta, AC Milan
M Claudio Marchisio, Juventus
M Andrea Pirlo, AC Milan
M Daniele de Rossi, Roma
F Antonio Di Natale, Udinese
F Alberto Gilardino, Fiorentina
F Vincenzo Iaquinta, Juventus