Considering the elation and magnitude of the celebrations, it would not be entirely silly of anyone who had not watched the game to think Italy confirmed their presence in South Africa with a triumphant victory over a relatively mediocre international side like the Republic of Ireland. This could not be further from the truth. A 2-2 draw against the Irish at Croke Park was incredibly disappointing – the simple fact being that Italy should not need to rely on late goals just to equalise against teams like Ireland.
Then again, those who have watched the Azzurri since Marcello Lippi returned to coach the team could see it coming. Reports of a 4-2-3-1 being utilised in training were both worrying and baffling in equal measure. To see this system rear its ugly head on Saturday evening was only ever going to produce a laboured, struggle of a performance. The formation has not worked in a single game since Lippi returned, so quite why he expected it to work this time is anybody’s guess. The choice becomes even more ridiculous when you consider how well la Nazionale played when defeating Bulgaria one month ago, using a 4-3-1-2 that produced probably the best display of the qualifying campaign, and placed players in their proper positions where they could be effective.
The primary problem in Dublin was a horrible lack of movement during the offensive phases of play. The number of times Andrea Pirlo received the ball, only to find a static set of teammates around him, was alarming. Pirlo is ineffective if you do not have players moving for him (exactly the same is happening at his club, Milan) – his clever passing and vision cannot be put to use if you have individuals standing still. Instead of being clever and penetrative, his passing becomes easy to defend. He was not helped by Daniele De Rossi, whose attempts at passing any further than six yards were woeful throughout the game. This meant that the Milan maestro was left as the only Italian who could move the ball creatively. As a result, he ended up dropping so deep in the second half that he was practically sitting on top of De Rossi and Angelo Palombo (who were deployed in front of the defence) just so he could collect the ball and make a better fist of distribution.
Paradoxically, Italy did actually control large periods of the game thanks to an ability to keep possession of the ball. The short passing game did look very good, exactly what you would expect from the world champions, it is just a creative edge that was sorely lacking. What might help is if those that started the game did so in positions where they are effective for their clubs. Antonio Di Natale is the most in-form striker in the country – nine goals in seven games, mainly from being employed up-front in a 4-4-2 – yet he was played on the left on Saturday evening where he was anonymous. Vincenzo Iaquinta, the lone striker, desperately needed a partner. His personal display was brilliant – he chased down long balls and turned them into half-chances for his comrades, he harried opposition defenders in possession, and his composure for Alberto Gilardino’s equaliser showed exactly what he could do with a goal scorer alongside him. Ideally, he would not make the strongest starting XI, but Lippi’s current love of Juventus and their squad is unlikely to wane at any point in the near future, so expect to see him feature in the team a lot more often.
Now that qualification is assured, the World Cup winning Coach has plenty of time to think about just who would make up his strongest team. It is important that Italy enter the World Cup with a settled system, a settled team and a consistent style of play. Tactical flexibility is all well and good, but only if the players are genuinely able to perform in the myriad of formations. Scoring goals has been targeted as a problem, and we all know a certain individual who can help with this, but the deficiency of quality in depth in central defence is a real concern right now. Fabio Cannavaro’s suspension provided us with a chance to scrutinise the next-in-command in a tough environment. Nicola Legrottaglie was the man assigned the task, and he failed miserably. The number of fouls he committed was incredible, all of them stupid, and all down to poor positioning or difficulty when being made to run. His first foul led to the free-kick from which Glen Whelan managed to give Ireland the lead. In simple terms, Legrottaglie is not good enough – not for the first-team, and not for the squad. Yet he is apparently the first alternative to Cannavaro and Giorgio Chiellini.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to this issue. It is simply one of those things that we have to accept – just like in 2002, where the national team was flush with centre-backs but struggled to find any sort of international class in central midfield. These things work in cycles – now Italy has a lot of quality in the middle of the park, but how they would love for a Mark Iuliano at this moment, a player who entered the 2002 World Cup as a substitute (he started only one game). Lippi, quite rightly, does not want to rush the young talent into the team. A youngster, who is not ready, being thrown into a game where he then performs badly, can ruin a potentially great career. Therefore, he must work with what he has, and the team can certainly do better than the 32-year-old Bianconero as a first reserve. Alessandro Gamberini is a younger, more mobile central defender who is playing regular Champions League football. He certainly deserves his chance after the Legrottaglie horror show.
Much of Italy’s ability to be competitive in South Africa next year lies in Lippi’s ability to admit his mistakes (not necessarily publicly), admit that some of his ideas do not work, and rectify them. Up till now, he has not shown too many signs that he is willing to submit in any manner. The world champions are relying on their Coach – in more ways than one.
– 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 – venue tbc
Italy vs. Cyprus
World Cup South Africa 2010 Final draw – December 4, 2009