Alexa

Aging Italy faces steep challenge to defend title

Aging Italy faces steep challenge to defend title

For a defending champion, Italy doesn't enter the World Cup with much momentum.
The Azzurri failed to get through the group phase at last year's Confederations Cup and have scored only one goal in their last three games _ drawing each of its friendlies since qualifying for South Africa.
Still, coach Marcello Lippi is clinging to the group of aging veterans that won the title four years ago. Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Andrea Pirlo and Mauro Camoranesi will each be over 30 by the time they get to the World Cup _ and Cannavaro will be nearly 37.
"If I had to enter this team in a yearlong league I would make different calculations," Lippi said at a recent meeting with foreign media. "But for a tournament that lasts only one month, age is not a problem. Actually, when you put a player's quality on the balance, you don't look only at age and skill. You look at experience, intelligence, charisma, how they perform in European cup play, how they affront a tough part of a game. You add all this together.
"Over the course of a month, a player that's 34 or 35 can be more important than one who's 25. You don't need to be 23 or 24 to play five or six games."
On the positive side, Italy can draw from its experience at the Confederations Cup. The players already know what type of weather awaits them in the southern hemisphere's winter, and they realize they need more preparation for playing games at high altitude.
With the climate and altitude in mind, Italy is heading to the Alps for its pre-World Cup training, choosing to prepare for two weeks in Sestriere, the Alpine ski resort that hosted the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, which has an altitude of more than 2,000 meters (6,500 feet).
Plus, with Lippi back after a two-year hiatus that included the 2008 European Championship _ which Italy exited with a quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Spain _ the Azzurri can rely on continuity.
"We've got to have the same psychological approach, the same morale, the same solidness, the same unity we had at the last World Cup, and hopefully that same bit of luck you need for every big tournament," Lippi said.
Italy already got some luck when it was drawn into a relatively easy group with Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. Still, Lippi pointed out that Paraguay was at or near the top of the standings for most of South American qualifying.
"They only gave up some ground in the final few rounds. They play very rapidly and very fast," Lippi said.
While Lippi used reserves for most of the game, Italy barely edged New Zealand 4-3 in a friendly before the Confederations Cup.
"We know New Zealand," the coach said. "They've got good physical attributes and are particularly dangerous on set pieces and headers. But it's a team that we should be able to deal with."
Italy also knows one of Slovakia's top players well, since forward Marek Hamsik has stood out for Napoli in Serie A the past few seasons.
"Slovakia has a good collective. They play more or less like the Czech Republic," Lippi said, perhaps recalling Italy's 2-0 win over the Czechs in the 2006 group stage. "They've got very good and very young players, notably Hamsik, who is destined to have a great career."
In 2006, Italy's strength was its defense. Buffon allowed only two goals over seven games _ one of them an own-goal and the other a penalty kick from Zinedine Zidane in the final that the Azzurri won on penalties over France.
However, Buffon has been in and out of the lineup at Juventus this season due to knee surgery and a thigh strain, and Cannavaro has also struggled at the Turin club, which could provide as many as eight players for Italy.
Giorgio Chiellini was one of Italy's top players at Euro 2008, and should pair in central defense with Cannavaro. Fabio Grosso is back at left back after scoring the decisive penalty against France four years ago, and Zambrotta is still a fixture at right back.
There are more questions in midfield, with Daniele De Rossi, Pirlo and Camoranesi among the top options. Alberto Gilardino appears likely to start at center forward, with Vincenzo Iaquinta, Antonio Di Natale and Fabio Quagliarella options for the wings.
Lippi appears intent on leaving creative but temperamental forward Antonio Cassano and Inter Milan's 19-year-old forward Mario Balotelli off the squad, despite frequent calls to include them.
Italy also has no scandal to rally itself around this time. The Azzurri's last two titles _ in 1982 and 2006 _ both came amid widespread scandals rocking the Italian game. In '82 it was a betting scandal and four years ago there was the match-fixing scandal known as Calciopoli.
"There's still three months to go, so who knows," Lippi said with a chuckle. "But nobody in Italy is hoping for a scandal. And Italy didn't win in Germany because of Calciopoli. If we hadn't come in with a tight-knit group, with all that happened, we would have melted like snow beneath the sun."


Updated : 2021-04-15 17:09 GMT+08:00