The Azzurri – Part I: From Germany’06 To Africa’10

Fans And Features - Final - Day 31 - FIFA World Cup 2006

Italy faces an uphill task when they travel to South Africa to defend the world cup they had earned in Germany’06. The Azzurris’ performance in the Euro 2008 tournament and the Confederations Cup has done nothing but reiterate the fact that the lack of good young players, or the presence of the aging heroes thereof, has led to the demise of Italian football. Their route to a World Cup berth was no cakewalk, as they labored hard to finish at the top of the table in the qualifiers. Before taking a look at their chances of winning the World Cup, a recap of their recent form should give a better picture of the current scenario.

One of the major reasons for their success in the last edition of the World Cup was that most of their players were in the prime of their careers; moreover, they had a coach, who could motivate players to play the best football of their life. Take Fabio Cannavaro, for instance; Lippi informed the captain that if he could take Italy to the finals, that match would be his hundredth cap for the national team. This not only motivated him to be the best defender in the tournament, but also made him an inspirational leader who led with character.

People would probably have noticed that the team comprised of players, who were in the age bracket where they would be at the peak of their careers, around 28 to 32 years. But it didn’t cross anyone’s mind that the same set of players might not figure in the scheme of things, two to three years down the line.

Gennaro Gattuso was one of the major forces behind the Azzurris’ World Cup triumph. His ability to motivate his team mates, when the chips were down, was commendable. His most remarkable trait was that he knew his limit- he was not a creative player who could fashion a goal out of nothing; to make up for it, he ran all over the pitch, with passion and grit. Covering the ball and breaking down passes was his forte, and his immense strength earned the title of “Rhino”. But now, his body has given up on him; if not for the stature that this man holds in Italian football, he would never make it to the team.

Italy’s style of football is not feasible with the current crop of players in their ranks. Italy would always defend well, play short and quick passes, and then put the onus on their creative players to create some magic. In Germany, this creative role was performed exceptionally well by the talismanic Francesco Totti, the midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo and another legend – Alessandro Del Piero. Now, Totti has retired from international duties; Del Piero has not been selected, since playing against Georgia sometime back in September 2008. Although Pirlo is still around, he is now a shadow of the player he was four years ago. The only backup that Italy has developed for the creative midfielder slot is Alberto Aquilani, who still has a long way to go.  Other than that, Italy has options like De Rossi and Cameronesi around the corner.

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Apart from the void in the creative department, it is evident that attack was another area where Italy has bigger problems to deal with. Their shambolic display in Euro 2008 proved that they were lacking in pace, as compared to other international teams, who are oozing with pacy youngsters. Would it be right to look up to Vincenzo Iaquinta to run over defences? Can one expect a player like Gianluca Zambrotta to provide quick balls down the right flank? How could one expect Cannavaro to stand up to the forwards coming up in the ranks in European football?

The Azzuri in the Qualifiers

Italy’s performance in the qualifiers might not reveal the true state of Italian football. They were drawn against a relatively easy group comprising of teams like Cyprus, Montenegro, Georgia, Ireland and Bulgaria. Though Ireland have the reputation of troubling big nations, and Bulgaria boasts of stars such as Dimitar Berbatov and Martin Petrov in their ranks, the Azzurri still ended at the top of the table, after a few initial Hiccups.

Cyprus almost held Italy to a 1-1 draw at Larnaca, but Antonia Di Natale saved the latter the blushes, with an injury time goal. The Azzurri went past Georgia easily with a 2-0 victory after a brace by De Rossi. The most crucial game of the group was the away game against Bulgaria which was an “exciting” draw at 0-0. With none of the teams, including Italy, scoring convincing victories over their opponents, the group remained tight and close. Up next was Montenegro, and the reigning champions were supposed to get past them easily. But it took a world class performance by Alberto Aquilani and his two goals, to help Italy snatch a tricky 2-1 victory at home.

Italy’s closest rival in the group was Ireland, and a victory against them would have ensured direct qualification for the men in blue. They were on their way with a goal by Iaquinta, but a late goal by Robbie Keane ensured that Italy had to wait to stake their claim for a world cup berth. The next match was the most bizarre game of the group yet, as two own goals from Georgia’s Kakha Kaladze handed over a 2-0 victory to the Italians. The match that followed ensured that Italy increased their lead over the others, in a 2-0 win at home against Bulgaria.

The trip to Dublin was a dramatic one. As it turned out, if Ireland were to win this encounter, they could close the lead to just 1 point. So the position of group leaders was at stake, and it promised to be a thriller. The game met all expectations, as Ireland took the lead twice, before Italy scored the second equalizer, and a last gasp goal by none other than Alberto Gilardino ensured that the Azzurri snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in true Italian style, to let them remain at the top of the table. Italy’s last game was no short of surprises and shocks, as it saw Cyprus taking a lead of 2-0, before the saviour Gilardino could come in again and score a hatrick in the last 15 minutes of the game to put the result beyond doubt.

The Azzurri did top the group with 24 points, but it was not a convincing performance. The script would have been different if not for a few moments of brilliance.

In Part II, TheHardTackle reviews the World Cup draw, and discusses what Italy needs to do to resolve all of their shortcomings to ensure they don’t return empty-handed.

  • Thanks for a great post and interesting comments. I found this post while surfing for some music events. Thanks for sharing this post.

  • Do you think Di Natale should get a chance with the form he is in? I also feel that the defense is weak this time even if Nesta comes back. 2006 WC had lotsa tough characters in the Italian team like Gattusso, Camoranesi, Totti, Buffon to name a few, who are all old now and their successors haven’t really shown the trademark Italian stubbornness till now.

  • Kurt

    @above- Nesta Ain’t coming back no matter what.. And what the hell are you trying to say by putting Buffon amongst these players?? He will still play a major role for Italy if fit n IMO is still one of the best around

  • @mica.. Thank You for your feedback.. Highly appreciated and We have the part II of this story coming up soon!!

    @Dhaw.. Di natale no doubt has performed well for udinese this season but for Italy he has come up with some pedestrian performances off late. I would want to see someone young like a Baloteli or Aquafresca with Rossi an then we could have Di Natale subbed in at a later stage.

    @Kurt.. I second that

  • Arvind

    A few things.

    Del Pierro was a peripheral figure even in last world cup. He was used as a sub for Totti. Thought he has shown bits of form with Juventus, It is better for Azzurri if he doesn’t come close to the team.

    Aquilani never was used as a sub for Pirlo, they are different players (at least from what I saw the little crocodile at Roma). Pirlo plays much deeper than Aquilani.

    Acquafresca… you must be joking. With the kind of form he is in, more than dozen players will be ahead of him in the queue.

    The biggest problem which hasn’t been touched upon is the stubbornness of Lippi. He is leaving out the best outfield player of Italy because of his personal issues. His pro-Juventus bias is visible everywhere to the detriment of team. The likes of Leggrotaglie, Grosso etc. being played at the expense of better players is another thing that might come back to haunt him. I thought the confederations cup fiasco would be enough to make him learn, but alas another humiliation awaits them.

  • @arvind.. I don’t know if you’ve watched Italy’s recent games or not but Pirlo is no more playing as a deep architect. he’s playing the traditional creative mid behind the strikers. And I never said that Aquilani was used as a sub for Pirlo.. He’s d only other option being developed for the creative mid spot
    And as far as Lippi is concerned you must have noticed I did not talk about Coaches at all so yes thats coming up in the part II of this series and I know you are talking about Cassano and again that will be covered in part II..
    @aquafresca.. He has performed exceptionally well for the Italy U-21 and he could be the answer to Italy’s biggest problem of being slow up forward

  • Somnath

    Aquafresca ? Seriously ? I know he was star in U-21 level but he has done nothing after that. And the biggest Azzurini star was Giovinco. He was Italy’s best player in the Euro U-21 & was involved in 4 of Italy’s 5 goals.

    The only striker who can make a difference in Mario Balotelli. He is strong & skillful & fast. But attitude problem means Lippi won’t take him.

    Italy doesn’t have any competent striker, di Natale performs poorly always, even the last friendly vs Cameroon he missed 2 sitters.

    Montlivio, Marchisio & Candreva all 3 can be creative players as CM or wider midfielders.

  • Somnath

    Pazzini, Balotelli, Rossi, Boriello/Gilardino/Floro Flores

    These players can bring some much needed pace & physical presence.

  • Arvind

    Pirlo was used in the advanced role more as a stop gap arrangement. In fact if my memory serves me right, he played 3 games in that position and was overall average. It was more to do with lack of alternatives rather than Pirlo’s best position.

    I dont know how much you have followed Serie-A, but this season, between his stints at Atalanta and Genoa, Aquafresca has been pure garbage. In fact a lot of Inter fans were angry at Management for using Acquafresca as makeweight to land Milito. Now none of us are upset, plus he doesn’t have the pace either. Atalanta had Aquafresca leading the line for most of the season, and their goals scored column indicates they are the least potent force in the league. Coincidence? Not really.

    Tons of players find it tough to make the transition from U-21 to seniors. And if I have to bring in some freshness in the strikeforce, Balotelli would be much better option. The likes of Miccoli and Pazzini would be a nice option too. But the former burnt his bridges with Juventus, that would mean Lippi will not give him a chance.

  • Lippi always had a fascination for the top Serie A teams (and Juve in particular). That’s why you see a lot of A.C Milan, A.S Roma and Juve faces.

    If you build a Azzuri squad out of the top4 Serie A Teams (Milan, Juve, Roma, Fiorentina. Inter is not Serie-A) and make them play against a team built out of the other 16 teams, the Rest of SerieA XI will win.

    Andrea Cossu, who only recently got a break against Cameroon is a great talent who has been neglected till now. Or even Pazzini of Sampdoria. People only focus on Cassano because he makes the headlines but Pazzini has been phenomenal this season.

    Lippi should never have returned to the bench. The Milan midfield he used as his core in WC-2006 is pedestrian now. Gattuso has simply lost it. His last great game was the 2007 CL Semi-final against Man Utd. Instead Lippi should really consider Ambrosini who has rejuvenated this season. Also, Angelo Palombo is a good Gattuso replacement – in terms of skills and getting the team pumped up.

  • Somnath

    I disagree with the fact that Lippi always had a fascination with onlythe big teams. This was quite untrue in his first stint.

    Look at the players he picked for WC – Players from Palermo (Grosso, Zaccardo, Barzagli, Barone), Udinese (Iaquinta), Fiorentina (Toni), Livorno (Amelia).

    The players he picked from big clubs were indispensible & were eventually the best performers – Buffon, Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Pirlo & Gattuso.

    And neither did he show any Juventus fascination in that stint – Camoranesi, Buffon, del Piero, Zambrotta, Canna. All were best in Italy in their respective positions.

    In his second stint he has shown this unhealthy trend. Juve is no longer the best team in Italy, no use picking players from there. Plus players always being called up for NT has hurt the club’s performance too.

  • Somnath

    Italy NT’s assosciation with Juventus is an age-old tradition, Lippi is just following that.

    The WC winning sides on 1930 & 34 were primarily made up of players from Carlo Carcano’s 5 back to back Scudetti winning Juventus team.

    Similarly the defense of 1982 WC winning team was also primarily Juventus – Zoff, Scirea, Gentile, Cabrini. Not to forget the guy who scored 6 goals – Paolo Rossi, was a Juventus youth product.

    Pietro Anastasi, the guy who scored the winning goal in Euro 68 final was also a Juventus player for a long period, including when he won Euro.

  • Somnath

    Two Juventus youth products have won the golden boot in WC – Rossi & Schillachi. Lets see any other club match that :)

    We also have had most WC winning players & players playing in NT in every WC other than 1934. Another record. Italy missed out in WC58 but thanks to John Charles, Juve had an able representative.

  • Somnath

    *Other than 1930 not 1934*