The first of two vital World Cup qualifiers saw the Azzurri fly out of Montenegro with their first objective complete, taking all three points from the Balkan side. Ireland’s draw with Bulgaria may have eased some of the pressure from the Italians, but when their Coach Giovanni Trappatoni watches the tape of the Azzurri’s latest performance, he and his players will fancy their chances of leaving Bari with at least a point on Wednesday night.
The issue for Marcello Lippi is, once again, a dire attacking display. It is a theme that has by and large been running throughout la Nazionale’s qualifying campaign so far, and it needs to be addressed very swiftly if they are to progress automatically to South Africa in 2010. The foundations are there in the 4-2-3-1 system that he deployed on Saturday night. Previous matches have highlighted a lack of bodies in support for the unfortunate individual chosen to lead the line. This was rectified against the Montenegrins, however it was not of international quality.
The entire forward line that started the game needs to be jettisoned. Vincenzo Iaquinta, Antonio Di Natale (and his replacement Simone Pepe) and Fabio Quagliarella do not have the necessary ability to perform in the international arena. Each one struggled against mediocre opposition, and when it comes to the major tournaments where the better teams lie in wait, this will only be exposed further. Andrea Pirlo is more than good enough for this level, but it has been a long time since he has played as far up the pitch as he did on Saturday. His lack of pace does not endear him to the role he was required to perform, and perhaps surprisingly he did not offer anything in the way of forward passing. With the squad selected lacking genuine international class for this position, Lippi was not left with any choice but to use the Milan player in this way.
As a result, we witnessed an ineffective use of ball possession and a lack of direction when the team were on the attack. Having taken the lead through Pirlo’s penalty in the first half, it took until eight minutes into the second before the World Cup holders had another meaningful shot on goal and forced a save from ‘keeper Vukasin Poleksić, and that came from the right boot of holding midfielder Daniele De Rossi. Only two further clear-cut chances were created – one of which was wasted by Iaquinta after he failed to connect properly with Pepe’s pass across the area, and the other tucked away by the in-form Giampaolo Pazzini, who replaced the Juventus striker shortly after he fluffed his lines.
Andrea Tallarita recently stated his belief that this system will only work with a fantasista, one which this writer wholeheartedly agrees, and the forward display only appears to reaffirm this view. It also makes the decision to ignore Antonio Cassano all the more mystifying. Lippi has a chance to give the Sampdoria player a call in light of Antonio Di Natale’s injury, which appears serious enough to keep him out of Wednesday’s game. Yet his comments, in which he stated his side created enough chances in the second half, suggest that he is happy with what he has seen from the current bunch at his disposal. In reality, some pace and the ability to beat defenders needs to be added but this is precisely what is missing from the attacking players that have been chosen, and as such, there is very little the Coach can do. Giuseppe Rossi is the only player who will fulfil those requirements, but there seems to be a reluctance to play him despite the good form he has been showing all season at Villarreal.
Whilst the attack was providing everything that was negative about the performance, the defensive area looked superb. The fact that it was only Montenegro must be noted, and there is no doubt the top sides in Europe would have actually created more than one clear chance against the Azzurri. Nevertheless, the strength of the defensive unit, marshalled by captain Fabio Cannavaro, was in full view. Protected by De Rossi and Angelo Palombo in the midfield, the opposition managed to get in behind the Italians once, at which point they came across Gianluigi Buffon who pulled off a remarkable save from Radomir Djalović. Sampdoria man Palombo looked a reliable stand-in for the injured Gennaro Gattuso, but his squad status is unlikely to progress to anything more than that. One moment of sloppy play in particular very nearly cost his team a goal and Cannavaro’s place on the pitch, who was lucky to only be shown a yellow card having brought down Stevan Jovetić – the Fiorentina forward sent through by Palombo’s misplaced pass. Errors of this type cannot be afforded at major international tournaments, where top sides will punish them without fail. When the quality of the central midfield players available to Lippi is considered, it looks bleak for somebody such as the 27-year-old. De Rossi, Pirlo, Gattuso and Alberto Aquilani all appear certainties for any squad providing they are fit. Add Simone Perrotta and upcoming youngsters in the shape of Claudio Marchisio and Luca Cigarini, and it is one of the most competitive areas of the team.
For now he has the jersey, and is likely to keep it in when Ireland visit the Stadio San Nicola on Wednesday evening. Having only achieved a 1-1 draw at Croke Park – a result that the Irish will undoubtedly view as two points dropped – an opening has appeared for Italy to take full control of the group by surging five points clear of their nearest rivals. With third-placed Bulgaria nine points behind the Azzurri and seven behind Ireland, it would be safe to assume that the visitors on Wednesday evening are going to be the team that will fight Lippi and his team for automatic qualification to South Africa. A window of opportunity has presented itself, it is imperative la Nazionale ensure it is opened.
Highlights from Montenegro 0-2 Italy