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Time for Lippi to prove his doubters wrong

June 12, 2010

Italy kick-off their defence of the World Cup against Paraguay on Monday night, but few people believe they can repeat the success of four years ago. Coach Marcello Lippi has been criticised for sticking with the old guard and his squad contains nine of the players from 2006. But I cannot see any reason why he should not choose to balance experience with the new players. It is worth noting that Lippi decided not to recall several big names to his squad; Totti, Nesta, Grosso, Del Piero and Luca Toni all miss out.

Lippi has shown faith in young defenders like Domenico Criscito, Salvatore Bocchetti and Leonardo Bonucci ahead of the likes of Grosso and Legrottaglie who lost out after a torrid season at Juventus. Indeed it would have been foolish to keep faith in a Juve dominated backline given that they conceded 56 goals in Serie A this year. Cannavaro was outstanding in Germany four years ago but is no longer the force he once was. Nonetheless, his experience and know-how serve a big role, and he may rediscover the form which made him FIFA World Player of the Year in 2006. Certainly he, along with Giorgio Chiellini, should be able to deal with the attacks of Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia in the group stage. Along with Criscito, Bocchetti and Bonucci, Lippi has called on other form players from Serie A such as Cristian Maggio, Claudio Marchisio and Angelo Palombo. Antonio Di Natale scored 29 goals this season, earning the Capocannoniere crown, and although relatively unknown on the international stage he may prove to be Italy’s most important player. The Udinese forward is versatile and can score a variety of goals.

Italy's victorious 2006 team had a great team spirit, and nine of them return in South Africa

In the centre of midfield Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi are a formidable pairing who can pass the ball well, create chances, score goals, break-up attacks, and in Pirlo they have one of the world’s leading dead-ball specialists. Pirlo may miss out on some, if not all, of the group games due to injury and so Fiorentina’s Ricardo Montolivo may get the chance to step in. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is still the best goalkeeper on the planet (although Iker Casillas and Julio Cesar come close to his ability) and will be integral to Italy’s form this summer.

Despite all of this, I have my doubts about the Azzurri ‘s chances in South Africa. The group stage should be a formality, as even a draw against their toughest opponents Paraguay would be far from a disaster given that the following fixtures against New Zealand and Slovakia pose much less of a challenge. But for Italy to send out a message that they are serious contenders, nine points and top place in the group is vital. A second round tie against the runners-up from Group E, assuming Holland win the group, would see the Azzurri take on less daunting opponents in the form of Denmark, Japan or Cameroon. Unfortunately, however, they are on course to face Spain in the quarter finals. For all the praise and hyperbole that is frequently, and usually quite rightly, dished out on the Spanish side, Italy would deserve just as much applause if they were to shut them out as Spain would get should they play their stylish brand of football and go all the way.

The problem for Italy is that they no longer pass the ball as incisively or defend as well as they used to (even form in pre-tournament friendlies has been poor). But as Lippi recently pointed out; Italy are never favourites. In 2006 they won the tournament with a fantastic team spirit, a winning mentality and a ruthless touch that saw their 12 tournament goals spread between ten different players. Not since Brazil in 1962 has any side retained the World Cup, and the only other time this has occurred was with Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy side of the 1930s. Lippi faces a monumental task in even coming close to achieving this but knows that any failure will ruin his iconic status on the peninsula, which he gained in 2006 but has been fading ever since he returned to the job in 2008 under the equally intense scrutiny of the Italian media and public. Time for one last hurrah or to go out with a whimper?

As for tonight’s game, the Videprinter predicts England 2 USA 0

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