“Solo vincere!” (Only victory), was the morning headline on the front of La Gazzetta Dello Sport as Marcelo Lippi took his troops into battle at the Stadio Olimpico in Turin. There had been much anticipation of what the starting line-up would look like after last weekend’s lacklustre performance in Tbilisi. Lippi opted for a 4-3-1-2 with Andrea Pirlo playing just behind the strikers. The big surprise was that Alberto Gilardino was selected to partner Vicenza Iaquinta in attack as Fabio Quagliarella had to make do with another place on the bench. Roma’s Daniele De Rossi returned after suspension to anchor the midfield thus freeing up Pirlo to use his creative prowess to unlock the Bulgarian defence. Local boy Claudio Marchisio was drafted into midfield alongside Mauro Camoranesi, the unlucky men being Angelo Palombo and Marco Marchionni who watched from the stands. Fabio Grosso replaced Dominic Criscito at left-back as Lippi opted for experience over youth. Seven of the starting XI were from Juventus and it was hoped they would be inspired playing on their home ground.
Starting line-up vs. Bulgaria
2 Zambrotta – 5 Cannavaro – 4 Chiellini – 3 Grosso
7 Camoranesi – 6 De Rossi – 8 Marchisio
9 Gilardino – 11 Iaquinta
The game set off at an electric pace, Grosso being involved in most of the good early exchanges, the intelligent Marchisio acting as cover to allow the imposing left-back to make his trademark runs down the left wing. The squad looked far more balanced than against Georgia, with De Rossi again doing the leg work in front of his defence to repel any Bulgarian advances. On 11 minutes, the Azzurri got the all important breakthrough, a wonderful one-two between Grosso and Pirlo culminated in a sublime finish from the elegant defender as he flicked the ball over the advancing goalkeeper into the net. With the Turin crowd right behind them, Lippi’s men went for the jugular – Iaquinta and Gilardino were pulling the Bulgarian defence to shreds, Camoranesi and Marchisio providing the width as Pirlo picked them out with some breathtaking passes. Bulgaria still looked dangerous on the counter attack and led by Dimitar Berbatov they were giving the back four some nervy moments. On 26 minutes Gianluigi Buffon made an incredible save from Stiliyan Petrov to keep the scores level – the big goalkeeper is certainly back to his best. Iaquinta and Gilardino had developed a great understanding with each other and this culminated with a wonderful interchange on 40 minutes which saw the Juventus front man drill the ball home to ease the pressure inside the stadium. It had been a scintillating 45 minutes of football, the complete opposite of five days ago.
An unchanged Azzurri started the second half as they had finished the first, with neat, crisp passing that had the partisan crowd purring with delight. Surprisingly, Lippi then decided to make a change on 58 minutes when Giuseppe Rossi entered the proceedings as Gilardino made way. The match started to lose its edge and became scrappy, Italy seemed quite happy to soak up Bulgarian pressure and hit them on the counter attack, using the pace of Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta. The away side were coming into the game more and more as the Azzurri lost control of the midfield, so it was no surprise when on 73 minutes, Lippi introduced Simone Pepe who replaced the outstanding Marchisio – the youngster left the pitch to a richly deserved standing ovation. Pepe has electrifying pace and he exploited the gaps left by the marauding Bulgarian right-back as the visitors chased the game. The urgency had gone completely out of the contest and silly mistakes were creeping into the Azzurri’s play. One of the main culprits was De Rossi and he got into an awful mix up with Giorgio Chiellini which fortunately for the hosts came to nothing. Lippi had seen enough and wanted to close the game out, introducing Gaetano D’Agostino for Iaquinta to leave Rossi as the solitary striker for the final few minutes. The game ended in a whimper but the important thing was the result and the crowd left the Stadio Olimpico happy that their country had now opened up a four-point lead at the top of Group 8. For 45 minutes tonight, the Azzurri looked like world champions, the system looked right and the performance reflected this as the players looked far more comfortable than in the 4-4-2 formation in Tbilisi.
Marchisio was outstanding and looked as if he had played at senior international level for 10 years, his all round game far superior to that of Marchionni. Pirlo’s cultured passing game was at its very best as his defensive duties were taken away from him with the inclusion of De Rossi. Iaquinta was charging around his home ground as if his life depended on it, he was guilty of missing some guilt edged chances but a player of his ability is too good to ignore as his wonderful goal proved. Gilardino will have to battle with Fabio Quagliarella and Giuseppe Rossi for that starting berth alongside the Juventus front man. The defence is still a work in progress however, Cannavaro’s ageing legs a major cause for concern. Grosso was immense, returning to the form of three years ago he looks set to make the left-back position his own now he has returned to Serie A with Juventus. Italy stands on the precipice of qualification to next year’s World Cup finals with Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland up next for the Azzurri. Let’s not be under any illusions, this squad is far from the finished article, but as Lippi called for calm in the Press this week, the important thing is getting over the finishing line which can now be achieved on October 14 in Dublin.
– Italy Camp Focus – And it came to pass… – June 23, 2009 – A reflection of the Azzurri at the Confederations Cup, plus links to Football Italiano’s full coverage of the competition
FIFA World Cup 2010 Qualifying – UEFA Group 8
September 6, 2008 – Antonis Papadopoulos Stadium, Larnaca
Cyprus 1-2 Italy – Aloneftis 28; Di Natale 8, 90
September 10, 2008 – Stadio Friuli, Udine
Italy 2-0 Georgia – De Rossi 17, 89
October 11, 2008 – Vasil Levski National Stadium, Sofia
Bulgaria 0-0 Italy
October 15, 2008 – Via del Mare, Lecce
Italy 2-1 Montenegro – Aquilani 8,29; Vučinić 19
March 28, 2009 – Pod Goricom, Podgorica
Montenegro 0-2 Italy – Pirlo 11, Pazzini 73
April 1, 2009 – Stadio San Nicola, Bari
Italy 1-1 Republic of Ireland – Iaquinta 10; Keane 87
September 5, 2009 – Boris Paichadze Stadium, Tbilisi
Georgia 0-2 Italy – Kaladze OG 57, OG 67
September 9, 2009 – Stadio Olimpico, Turin
Italy 2-0 Bulgaria – Grosso 12, Iaqunita 39
October 10, 2009 – Croke Park, Dublin
Republic of Ireland vs. Italy
October 14, 2009 – venue tbc
Italy vs. Cyprus
World Cup South Africa 2010 Final draw – December 4, 2009