Marcello Lippi’s side will travel to South Africa as the reigning World Champions, but many have expressed doubts over whether this group of slowing, ageing players can come anywhere close to retaining their title this summer. With a starting line-up largely constituted of players well into their thirties, Italy could well struggle to reproduce some of the impressive performances they have given with such regularity at major tournaments over the last decade. With Lippi having ignored the majority of calls to draft younger players into the Azzurri set-up over the last eighteen months and stubbornly stuck with the same players that won the World Cup with him four years ago, many fear that June could bring humiliation for the holders.
However, despite the seemingly constant media negativity surrounding the team, Italy showed few signs of their supposed weaknesses during qualifying, progressing to the finals with 24 points from ten games and some impressive performances to boot. Spearheaded by Fiorentina’s Alberto Gilardino, who top scored for the Azzurri in qualification with four goals, the Italians registered some comprehensive victories over the likes of Bulgaria and Montenegro despite only being able to take two points from their pair of clashes with Ireland. Despite perhaps not being the same attacking force they were four years ago, Italy are still a strong defensive unit, the seven goals they conceded in ten games attesting to that. Italian football has always enjoyed a strong reputation for efficient defensive football, a proud tradition that this team continues with an experienced and intelligent back line.
From a tactical perspective, Lippi has changed little since his team’s triumph in Berlin four years ago, with Italy still using the same 4-3-1-2/4-4-2 shape which saw them attain such success in Germany. Giorgio Chiellini of Juventus is the only new addition to a back four also containing Gianluca Zambrotta, Fabio Cannavaro and Fabio Grosso, all veterans of 2006. In front of the defence Roma’s Daniele De Rossi anchors the midfield, flanked by the experienced pairing of Mauro Camoranesi and Gennaro Gattuso in what is a relatively narrow midfield three. Ahead of them sits the vastly experienced Andrea Pirlo who operates in the pocket behind the two strikers, most likely to be Lippi’s preferred duo of Alberto Gilardino and, another of the six Juve players likely to start for the Azzurri in South Africa, Vincenzo Iaquinta.
If Lippi can coax one last tournament’s worth of good performances from his players and take them all the way to a second consecutive final in South Africa, then it would be yet another magnificent achievement for the Tuscan Coach. But, with a squad surely past its best and the majority of players having spent the season as part of a floundering Juventus side, Italian prospects do not look particularly positive. Expect the Azzurri to progress comfortably from Group F, but a potential quarter-final clash with Spain could well prove their undoing.
Probable starting XI: Buffon (Juventus); Zambrotta (Milan), Cannavaro (Juventus), Chiellini (Juventus), Grosso (Juventus); Camoranesi (Juventus), De Rossi (Roma), Gattuso (Milan); Pirlo (Milan); Gilardino (Fiorentina), Iaquinta (Juventus)
Road to South Africa: 1st in UEFA Group 8
World Ranking: 5th