It’s been a turbulent few months for the Italian national team, on and off the field. A poor string of results, numerous injuries to key players and rumours of disarray within the dressing room haven’t given the supporters much to shout about; but come 7.30pm on Monday, all will be forgotten as the four-time champions begin their title defence against Paraguay in Cape Town.
Lets face it, It’s hardly been the ideal preparation for a side with everything to prove on the world stage. Recent friendly match results – including the match against Switzerland, have only served to fuel the pessimistic minds of the Italian nationals who love nothing more than to partake in the nation’s favourite pastime of criticising their beloved Azzurri. A squad that is rapidly ageing, a lack of creativity in addition to the injury of Andrea Pirlo have mounted pressure and expectation onto the shoulders of the few key players.
It is not yet clear just how long Italy will be without the beloved Pirlo, this may force a change in formation/tactics. Fiorentina man Riccardo Montolivo looks set to start in place of Pirlo, after being given the nod against Switzerland. In order to make full use of their key men, the trio of De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Di Natale played behind either Alberto Gilardino or Giampaolo Pazzini in the 4-2-3-1 would be using the 3 midfielders currently in the best form. It would also leave Gennaro Gattuso and Montolivo to do the running in midfield, giving cover to any of the questionable pairings picked at centre-back. The evergreen Buffon looks set to remain between the sticks and if the Italians are to mount a serious challenge, then Buffon will no doubt play a vital role. In 2006, he was named in the FIFA all star XI for the tournament, alongside talismanic centre back (and most capped Italian of all time) Fabio Cannavaro.
The only certainty is that Lippi will for the most part remain loyal to his players from 2006 and supporters will have to hope that they can get the job done. The question is do players like Gianluca Zambrotta and Gennaro Gattuso who are sad, faded images of the superstars they once were have enough left to give one last effort for their country?
Under normal circumstances, the Paraguayans would not be considered a big threat, but given Italy’s current form they may well prove to be a tough challenge. The majority of players ply their trade in Europe, so are experienced against such players. More recognisable faces in the Paraguay side include: Manchester City flop come dangerman Roque Santa Cruz, Sunderland defender Paulo Da Silva and Benfica legend Oscar Cardozo. They will also be aware of the need to start their campaign well. Take Germany 2006 as an example; their first group opponents were England. There they demonstrated good climatisation as well as attacking presence, only going down 1-0, thanks to an early own goal. In a group that is completed by New Zealand and Slovakia, Paraguay will feel they have every chance off making it to the next round.
From an Italian point of view the time for complaint and hindsight is nearly at an end, and all that is left is for the fans to support their team through whatever happens in the next four weeks. The squad (and manager) have the expectations of all of Calcio resting on their shoulders and in what will inevitably be the final world cup for many of the Italy players, the fans can be sure that they will want to finish in style and will no doubt have their hearts set on defending the title to equal Brazils’ record of five world titles, starting with a win in Cape Town tomorrow evening.