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.
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.