We cannot say that it has not been coming. The 1-0 defeat to Egypt on Thursday night was fully deserved, if only for the continued stubbornness of Coach Marcello Lippi. A string of sub-standard performances could not keep resulting in victories. Indeed, it was only in this column on Tuesday that we mentioned there is only so many times you can get away with half-time deficits. The loss leaves Italy in real danger of going out of this competition far earlier than they would have expected. In fact, such is the make-up of the final group fixtures, combined with the current form of the four teams, that there is an air of resignation about bowing out of the Confederations Cup.
It all begs the question – when did Italy last put in a good performance over the full 90 minutes? La Nazionale has laboured through it’s World Cup qualifying group, making most of the teams in it look far better than they actually are. You would probably have to cast your minds all the way back to the friendly games in preparation for Euro 2008, one of which saw Roberto Donadoni lead the team to a 3-1 victory over Portugal, to find the last genuinely high quality performance that was maintained throughout a match.
As such, it is a damning indictment on the second reign of Lippi so far, that he has not managed to coach the team to a performance of note or worth. He has plenty of credit left from his World Cup win in 2006, but you do have to wonder how long it will take before there are questions asked about whether he is still suitable for the job. There have been flaws from the very first game since his return (a 2-2 draw to Austria) – plenty of which can be fixed through reactive decision making. We are not asking for him to always get things right first time, but to accept when aspects of the team are not working.
The formation, a debate that could take up several columns worth of discussion, is simply not working. Amazingly, the 4-3-3 was used again against the Egyptians, and unsurprisingly, it failed for the umpteenth time. As if to compound the problem, Lippi thought it best to stick with width in the second half, and simply alter the 4-3-3 slightly as the game progressed so that there were more central midfielders pushed further up the pitch, closer to the striker (it became a 4-1-4-1 by the time Riccardo Montolivo and Simone Pepe had been introduced, which is no improvement on a 4-3-3). It is in many ways admirable that he is giving this creation every chance of succeeding and not simply changing at the first sign of failure, ironic as it is because whenever a switch to a different system is made, it is immediately swapped back again regardless of whether it failed or not. The Azzurri did not look like scoring in the first-half against the Pharaohs, with all their chances coming in the second 45 minutes, but it would be foolish to put this down to the small alterations in formation. Egypt gradually sat back upon realising they had a real chance of beating the world champions, yet it was enough to fool the Tuscan Coach, who believed that Italy played well in the second half.
Riccardo Montolivo, a player who has been criticised many times in this column, deserves praise for his efforts. He did miss a gilt-edged chance that simply should have been buried, and even though he is not a goal-scoring midfielder, a player with his technique should be scoring eight yards in front of goal. Despite this, he found spaces in attacking areas of the pitch and threatened on more than one occasion with his running with the ball. As he did on Monday, he injected some urgency into the forward movement of the team. It was only his eighth cap, so there is plenty of time to improve and settle in at this level. Whether he can be a mainstay in a future Azzurri midfield is debatable, as two good displays from the bench, against a low standard of opposition, are not indicative of a career to come.
There are however, players who just will not be good enough at this level, leading nicely onto another vital part that Lippi is getting wrong at the current moment – player selection. Nicola Legrottaglie, Simone Pepe, Angelo Palombo and Andrea Dossena are just four of the squad taken to South Africa who are not good enough for international football. You could possibly argue Fabio Quagliarella deserves a mention – performing well against Lithuania and Faroe Islands is a world away from being a regular international. Yet, as one of the few youngsters in the squad, it is worth persisting with him for the time being. He was one of the few players who were always looking for the ball against Egypt, the problem was his productivity was lacking. Simone Pepe is another who suffered from the same affliction, as apart from one cross he did not produce anything of note in his time on the pitch other than running aimlessly with the ball.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to picking a team. You can select a tactic, and then pick the players to fit into this method of playing (José Mourinho tried this at Inter, but bought the wrong players). Alternatively, you can pick the players you want, and then build a tactic that fits with their characteristics and abilities (Mourinho was subsequently forced to do this when he realised his 4-3-3 was not working). Unfortunately, Lippi tries to mix the two – he picks the players he wants, and then tries to force them into the tactic he has already pre-selected, a method that does not work in practice. An example within the current squad is wingers. A tactic has been chosen that requires wide players, yet apart from Pepe (who is arguably not good enough anyway), he has not picked any wingers who can manage international level football. The fact that Serie A does not actually possess any Italian wingers who are good enough (note to Lazio fans – Pasquale Foggia needs to develop consistency first) does not seem to matter. So the Azzurri is left with an incoherent attack, with players being played out of position, and that is struggling to score goals against weak opposition, unless they are down to 10-men.
Thankfully, the defence remains largely unaffected by the poor tactical choices, as it is a back four regardless. However, there are worrying signs that the famous Italian man-to-man marking is not what it used to be. The Azzurri has conceded five goals in the past week (three against New Zealand, one against USA, one against Egypt), and three have been from set-pieces. It is not a weakness you would perhaps associate with an Italian defence, but when sides such as New Zealand and Egypt are scoring from free-kicks delivered into the box, you know that there is either already a problem, or that one is developing. Admittedly, goalkeeping errors played a huge part in aiding New Zealand’s couple of goals, but Mohamed Homos received no such help from Gianluigi Buffon when he rose unmarked to head home the winning goal in the 40th minute. There have been marking errors in each of the three goals in question, with Daniele De Rossi the latest culprit. For whatever reason, Italy has taken to ignoring the basics of defending and at a time where the attack is the main downfall of this team, it is imperative the defence remains as tight as possible – at least that way defeats can be avoided.
They will be needed on Sunday night, when Brazil arrive in what is a repeat of February’s friendly at The Emirates. As with any Brazil team, there is plenty of hype that surrounds them, and there is an increasing tendency to look at their results, without having seen the game, and immediately assume that it was a typical Brazilian display. As it happens, this is one of the weaker Seleção teams in recent years, and an Italian side playing anywhere near their best is more than capable of beating them. As it is, the Azzurri has not played well for some time, whereas Brazil is starting to emerge from a similar slump that has been evident for 18 months now, returning to the sort of form that justifies their position as one of the favourites for the 2010 World Cup. The odds are very much against Italy when it comes to progression through the group. A victory would not guarantee progression if Egypt’s margin of victory over the USA is one goal greater than that of Italy’s over Brazil. If this occurs, Egypt progress by virtue of having scored more goals than the Italians. Indeed, la Nazionale is relying heavily on the USA getting a result. Pinning our hopes on another team to see the team through – I am sure I am not the only one with that feeling of déjà vu.
Italy 0-1 Egypt – Homos 40
Italy (4-3-3): Buffon – Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Grosso – Gattuso (Montolivo 59), De Rossi, Pirlo – Rossi (Toni 59), Iaquinta, Quagliarella (Pepe 66)
Egypt (5-3-2): El-Hadary – Fathi (Hassan 81), Said Ahmed, Honi Said, Gomaa, Moawad (Farag 70) – Abd Rabbou, Shawky, Homos – Aboutrika, Zidan (Eid 58)
June 6, 2009 – 19:50 – Arena Garibaldi, Pisa
Italy 3-0 Northern Ireland – Rossi 19, Foggia 52, Pellissier 73
June 10, 2009 – 19:50 – Super Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 4-3 New Zealand – Gilardino 33, 48, Iaquinta 68, 73; Smeltz 13, Killen 42, pen 57
Fixtures & Results
June 15, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 3-1 USA – Rossi 58, 93, De Rossi 72; Donovan 41
June 18, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Italy 0-1 Egypt – Homos 40
June 21, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy vs. Brazil
June 24-25, 2009 – both 20:30 – Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein & Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
June 28, 2009 – 15:00 – Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg
Third place play-off
June 28, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg