To their credit in 2006, Marcelo Lippi (then and present head coach) led a relatively unappreciated team from a tricky group to become champions of the world. Being without old heroes like Christian Vieri and Paolo Maldini, and refusing to recall influential players like Christian Panucci and Antonio Cassano, Lippi came in for heavy criticism.
In South Africa, Lippi faces that same criticism from many for again leaving Cassano at home, as well as other creative, combative individuals like Inter Milan’s treble-winning teenager Mario Balotelli and Villareal’s New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi. Instead, a base of largely unchanged faces from 2006 shuffles into the current tournament but if there’s one thing international football dictates, you never count out a country that’s won the World Cup four times.
Italy’s main strength is experience – most of the players in the squad are already world champions and 8 of the 14 that took part in that final will play integral roles this summer. Their 5 best players are Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale.
Buffon needs no introduction. The most expensive goalkeeper in the world, Buffon bucked the Italians’ general form in Euro 2008 by hauling Italy through the group phase and into the second round, where in spite of keeping Spain at bay for the entire game, he was powerless as they went out on penalties. Buffon commands the box better than any, which is just as well considering captain Fabio Cannavaro’s painful demise.
Giorgio Chiellini plays with the tactical intelligence of a player 10 years his senior but with an energy and attacking instinct vital to the success of Italy. Originally a left-back, Chiellini’s shift to the centre coincided with Didier Deschamps’ rejuvenation of Juventus in their second division season in 2006-07. Ferocious and uncompromising, Chiellini is rarely the liability his attacking instincts might suggest.
Pirlo is the lynchpin of the team. The AC Milan playmaker dictates the pace of the game through the middle, sending defence-splitting passes to the attackers, as well as being Italy’s main source of free kicks. Likely to be seen further forward for Italy than his club, Pirlo is nevertheless a schemer, not a battler. When Pirlo plays well, Italy play well.
De Rossi will always be remembered for his disgraceful elbow swing on ex-Fulham and USA captain Brian McBride at World Cup 2006, which left the forward bleeding from the face and earned him a straight red card. Since then, however, De Rossi has greatly matured. A one-club man, the Roma star has propelled his team to some unexpected achievements, adding plenty of goals along the way. Essentially filling the ‘enforcer’ role previously occupied by Genaro Gattuso, De Rossi will be a key component.
At 32, Di Natale might be nearing the golden years of his career but the 5’7” Udinese striker has outscored everyone in Europe except Didier Drogba and Lionel Messi, finishing with a hugely impressive 29 league goals. Rarely a fixture in national colours, Di Natale’s international record reads 9 goals in 31 appearances but, as a typical confidence performer, he looks set to relish his starting berth and reward Marcelo Lippi’s faith the way that Toto Schillachi did in 1990. Not quite a candidate for the Golden Boot when you consider David Villa, Messi and Robin Van Persie are lurking, Di Natale is still Italy’s best source of goals in this tournament.
So how far can we expect Italy to go in South Africa? The group stage will be no problem for them and a Last 16 tie against Denmark or Cameroon will hardly send shivers down their spines but a probable meeting with Spain in the Quarter Finals is realistically as far as their journey will go. Should they do the unthinkable and beat Spain, a repeat of 2006’s semi-final with Germany beckons and the odds would favour them setting up a pulsating final with Brazil. But it must be stressed that it would appear to be Italy’s fate, as current World Champions, to meet the European Champions, Spain and in all likelihood, Spain are too strong. Quarter Finals.