The usual debate of whether international friendly matches are worth playing at this time of year arose once again this week, with the latest round held up for debate played on Wednesday evening. While other nations may see them as obstacles that simply get in the way of the club season, Italy Coach Marcello Lippi and the Azzurri faithful would have learnt much from their encounter in Athens.
The 1-1 draw was, for the first 45 minutes, a drab encounter. The Italians dominated the majority of possession, yet as has been their problem too often recently, failed to create any goalscoring opportunities. The 4-3-3 system was deployed for the opening half, with Giuseppe Rossi playing on the left wing. Riccardo Montolivo was given the role to attack from the midfield three, and it is his role that leaves Lippi and his team with just as many questions as answers with regards to the formation.
Unlike his last Azzurri outing, against Bulgaria in October, Montolivo pushed forward at every available opportunity, supporting Luca Toni up-front when they had possession of the ball. No doubt Coach Lippi’s comments after his last appearance were ringing in his ears, where he stated the Viola skipper sat too deep in the midfield. This sort of midfield support is exactly what the 4-3-3 requires, however a new problem materialised, in the shape of the Fiorentina midfielder himself. His performance was poor, just like it was against the Bulgarians. He is a midfielder who is best utilised from deep, collecting the ball from the defence and starting moves. Unfortunately, he was asked to perform a role that he was not accustomed to and at times looked frighteningly unsure of what to do. His distribution when in the final third was poor, often giving the ball away, and his awareness of finding the space was not that of an international player. A genuine attacking midfielder is needed for this role to be executed successfully. The injured Alberto Aquilani is the closest the Azzurri have at the moment, and it is questionable whether he fits the bill too.
Montolivo wasn’t the only one to blame for the dire attacking display. Mauro Camoranesi was ineffective on the right hand side and striker Giuseppe Rossi was understandably nowhere to be seen playing out of position on the opposite side. It was no surprise then, when the former Juventus boss decided to remove Montolivo at half-time and replace him with winger Simone Pepe. A 4-4-2 beckoned for the second 45 minutes.
The Udinese wide-man was deployed on the left-hand side of a midfield four. Camoranesi kept his place on the right, but it meant Rossi was able to join Toni up-front. Within 30 seconds of the restart, the Villarreal striker played a slide rule pass to the Bayern frontman, whose shot was well saved. A minute later, the 21-year-olds quick feet created another chance, this time for Pepe, who fired over. Italy’s two best moves, and chances, came in the first two minutes of the change in formation. The switch did not come without issues, however. Greece, with what was their best move of the game, scored through Theofanis Gekas. Captain Fabio Cannavaro failed to pick up the Leverkusen striker, while ‘keeper Morgan De Sanctis was even more at fault as he should really have saved the shot.
The Greek goal highlighted how open La Nazionale are when they play this system. Yet, it is only natural when you take away a central midfielder to have more space. It is important Lippi does not see this as a reason to discard the formation altogether, as he appeared to do in the World Cup qualifier in Cyprus. The open space worked both ways, with Rossi giving the tifosi a few glimpses of his talent when played in the centre and Camoranesi far more effective out wide.
Luca Toni grabbed the equaliser for the Azzurri, getting on the end of a Daniele De Rossi free-kick to nod home his first since February. After around 20 minutes, the players settled nicely, seemingly able to cope with increased space around them now that they had time to adapt. This saw the Greeks struggle to create as many chances as they did at the start of the second half, as defensively the World Champions were tighter.
One player whose performance will have pleased Lippi most is Pepe. Normally a right-winger, he put in a very good display on the left. His runs to the by-line produced an end product, even with his left foot, and his pace troubled right-back Spiropoulos on more than one occasion. Whether he is able to produce this against better opposition remains to be seen, but he is an option that will no doubt stay in the Italy tactician’s thoughts through the New Year.
As the substitutions started to flow, the game started to slow. Christian Maggio replaced Camoranesi on the right, and in doing so became the first Napoli player since the superbly named Nando De Napoli to wear the blue shirt, yet Maggio didn’t offer anywhere near as much threat going forward as the Juventus man. While it is harsh to judge him on one 30 minute appearance, he is likely to be used to shore things up on the right side in the future, rather than as an option to trouble opposition full-backs.
A draw in the end was a fair result, yet one does wonder what the outcome would have been had the team started with 4-4-2. Going forward, the quality and quantity of chances created increases when the players are deployed this way. Defensively, the team are more than capable of coping with the system. After all, they won their fourth World Cup playing exactly the same way.
The main headline from this result will be Lippi’s fantastic achievement of 31 games unbeaten in charge of Italy, equalling the record set by former Argentina coach Alfio Basile and Spain’s Javier Clemente. In February next year he will have the chance to break this, against the only team to have won the World Cup more times than La Nazionale – five time winners Brazil. Roll on 2009.