Azzurri make slow but steady progress

30 consecutive games unbeaten. That is the record held by two-time World Cup winning Coach Vittorio Pozzo dating all the way back to 1939. A record which Italy coach Marcello Lippi equalled when his Azzurri side beat Montenegro 2-1 in Lecce on Wednesday night – when including his previous spell as coach of La Nazionale. This milestone game followed on from a drab 0-0 draw in Bulgaria, after which Lippi had claimed that a win was needed against the Montenegrin’s to “give the result value”. Now that objective has been achieved, can we say that four points from the two qualifiers is good value?

Pepe

On the face of it, four points from two tricky matches is a good return. Neither game was going to guarantee the Azzurri all three points. An away trip to a Bulgaria side with players from the top divisions in France, England and Germany was potentially one of the hardest away games in the group. Add to that the key players like Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo missing for Lippi, and a point from the game would have been seen as suffice. However, as it transpired, returning from Sofia with only the solitary point was disappointing, and only highlighted the issues that still remain with the current Italy team.

The team was once again sent out in a 4-3-3 system, and once again they struggled going forward. Chances were at a premium, this in part due to Bulgaria setting up with five across midfield and holding out for a draw. The best opportunities that did fall Italy’s way happened to fall to Alberto Gilardino, two of them to be precise. Both of these should have been finished by the Fiorentina striker – the first one in particular was a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper that should have been tucked away. The Bulgarian’s offered precious little at the other end, and as such the two gilt-edged chances that Gilardino squandered, as well as the general control of possession that Lippi’s men had on the game, meant that a draw felt like an opportunity missed.

Italy were guilty of not making the most of the possession they had of the ball, particularly in the second half. Riccardo Montolivo, winning only his second cap, struggled in midfield and as the Coach pointed out, he had a tendency to sit deep in the midfield, instead of offering the support to the front three that was so desperately needed. With hindsight, it would have perhaps been beneficial to use the Lombardian as a direct replacement for Pirlo, offering creativity from deep. The 23-year-old’s goalscoring record at club level does not reflect that of a player used to getting forward in support often.

Montolivo was, unsurprisingly, replaced by Alberto Aquilani for the next game against Montenegro. Strangely, he is a player who prefers operating in a deeper role, yet his remit on Wednesday evening was to get forward. This turned out to be rather effective as it was the Roma player’s two goals that gave Italy the victory. As good a night as it was for the youngster, it could not mask what was yet another uninspiring performance from the Azzurri.

It was another performance lacking in invention and ideas. Bar the two goals, Daniele De Rossi had the best chance when his diving header hit the upright whilst the wide players were, on the whole, ineffective. Debutant Simone Pepe was praised for his performances over the two games, yet one has to ask whether he is good enough for the international stage, certainly when faced with sterner opposition.

Aquilani

Pepe was, at best, industrious on the right wing. While it is fair to acknowledge his work led to Aquilani’s first goal against Montenegro, you have to account for the fact the cross-field pass should have been cut out by the opposition full-back, and that once Pepe had managed to find his way into the area he opted to shoot instead of cross into the centre. Only once the ball had been parried by the unfortunate Montenegrin goalkeeper did it find its way to Aquilani. The fact that the Udinese forward was called up, and subsequently started, demonstrates the lack of genuine international quality available to Lippi in the wide positions. This makes his decision to continue to stick with a system that relies on wide midfield players so heavily a confusing one, especially when the support and creativity from the centre of the midfield is generally lacking.

It was not all doom and gloom, though. Defensively, the team looked much better from the one we saw a month ago. Giorgio Chiellini is developing into a fantastic young centre-back, and can only learn and improve playing alongside one of the great defenders of the modern era in Fabio Cannavaro. Let us hope he makes use of every single game spent alongside the Real Madrid man. As a partnership, it looks to be on fine form. Ably supported by Gianluca Zambrotta and Liverpool’s Andrea Dossena, La Nazionale appears to have a strong back-line.

A pleasing aspect to the two games was the number of new faces introduced by the Italy tactician. Montolivo, Pepe and Giuseppe Rossi all made an appearance in the qualifiers at some point. The as-yet uncapped Fabiano Santacroce and Christian Maggio were also included in the squad, though neither managed to make it onto the pitch at any point. The significance of this is that Lippi is aware new, young blood is needed if Italy are to make a successful defence of their World Cup in 2010. He is willing to test them in the competitive arena too, which can only be good for assessing whether they are truly good enough for the international stage.

Above all, Lippi is looking to the future of the national side, past his current spell on the bench. The 60-year-old tactician wants Italy to be successful not only in two years, but in 10 years and beyond.

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