One question has arisen from Italy’s display on Wednesday night against Cyprus – just how long were the squad celebrating their qualification for the 2010 World Cup? Judging by what took place in the Ennio Tardini, they were still popping the champagne and patting each other on the back minutes before they took to the pitch to face the Cypriots. For the first 70 minutes, the Azzurri were absolutely flat. The players lacked intensity – they knew it was a dead rubber, and approached the match accordingly. For their efforts, the fans responded by booing the players off the pitch at half-time.
Their opponents, on the other hand, approached the game properly, and were almost rewarded with victory having taken a two goal lead, one which they managed to keep until the 78th minute. They certainly outshone Marcello Lippi’s men for the vast majority of the match, displaying energy and desire that was not seen from Italy until Daniele De Rossi entered the fray. It was surprising how lacklustre some individual performances were, considering that there are squad places on the plane to South Africa up for grabs. Gaetano D’Agostino, Simone Pepe (played out of position) and Giuseppe Rossi were all below par. Fabio Quagliarella is fortunate not be included in this roll-call, he was on the pitch long enough to be caught up in the all-round improvement that was made to the team when the aforementioned trio were substituted.
Can we blame the tactics for the shoddy play? After all, the entire qualification campaign has been blighted by silly tactical choices. A 4-3-2-1 was deployed for this final game, in what feels like the 10th different formation in 10 games. Quagliarella and Rossi were tucked in behind hat-trick hero Alberto Gilardino (though it is debatable if the third goal is his to claim) – not quite hugging the touchline as we have seen previously, and as we would expect to see in a pure 4-3-3, but more central behind the Fiorentina striker with freedom to move. A system like this – one that focuses more on the central areas – has the potential to work, but it needs player motivation and a proper midfield behind them. Udinese winger Pepe playing in central midfield was never going to be a roaring success, so it was a relief to see him removed at half-time. Similarly, D’Agostino did not cover himself in glory with the opportunity handed to him to control the tempo of the game in midfield, against sub-standard opposition. As the only alternative to Andrea Pirlo in the squad, he must show he is capable of playing to a level somewhere near that of his Milan counterpart. If he cannot manage it against Cyprus, then he is unlikely to manage it against higher quality international opponents.
There are better options when Pirlo is missing from central midfield. Indeed, we managed to catch a glimpse of such an option on Wednesday that was so effective that Lippi should be giving serious thought to settling on it as his first-choice combination for the midfield. When De Rossi replaced D’Agostino midway into the second half, the formation switched to 4-2-3-1, leaving the Roma captain and Gennaro Gattuso patrolling the middle of the park. So good were the duo that they must take a huge amount of credit for ensuring Italy did not lose their first home qualifier since 1999, when Denmark secured a 3-2 victory during the qualifying campaign for Euro 2000.
Gattuso relieves his midfield partners of so many defensive duties, allowing them to maraud forward and create. Andrea Tallarita has written many times about the incompatibility of Pirlo and De Rossi – the latter cannot play his normal box-to-box game with a playmaker like Pirlo alongside him as he must take on more defensive responsibility. It is a similar situation at Roma, with David Pizarro in the same midfield. It is a shame, because it seems his effectiveness when given freedom has been totally forgotten. When he first burst onto the international scene, he scored two goals in his first five starts – a very good record for a midfielder at this level. All bar one of these starts were alongside Gattuso in midfield, and the two goals were scored when Ringhio was alongside him. That is not to say he cannot score with Pirlo, but he cannot express himself in the same way. De Rossi is dynamic – a static holding midfield role does not do him justice. For 25 minutes against Cyprus, we saw once again what he can offer when somebody else fulfils this role for him. He entered the opposition penalty area more times in the short period he was on the pitch than when he plays a full 90 minutes in a defensive role.
There are precious few difference makers in the Italy squad at this moment – the Roman is one of two in midfield if he is given the correct role. Both Roberto Donadoni and Lippi have been guilty of failing to get the best out of him, which in this team can prove the difference between winning a World Cup, and crashing out at the quarter-final stage. It is vital that the best players are allowed to flourish – Lippi has until June to ensure De Rossi does just that.
– 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 2-2 Italy – Whelan 8, St Ledger 87; Camoranesi 26, Gilardino 90
October 14, 2009 – Stadio Ennio Tardini
Italy 3-2 Cyprus – Gilardino 77, 80, 92 ; Okkas 12, Michail Chrysostomos 47
World Cup South Africa 2010 Final draw – December 4, 2009