With England having won their final game to reach the final 16 under Fabio Capello, Marcello Lippi will be hoping that his side will share a similar fate this afternoon when they take on Slovakia.
If you are looking for a goal fest then look elsewhere. When it comes to the attacking capabilities of both squads, the similarities are startling. Both teams have a strong defence, they are both able to maintain possession but both appear lost for ideas once they reach the final third. The two squads lack creativity and flair and seem incapable of exerting sustained pressure and thus set pieces seem to be the ideal method of collecting points. Whilst Italy lack a creative figure that could create a piece of magic, their opponents lack a clear attacking philosophy at the top and struggle to pass the ball effectively and often lose possession entirely.
Slovakia’s Coach, Vladimir Weiss, who enjoyed a close rapport with the fans during qualifiers, seems to be losing his battle with external pressure and as a consequence his country have begun to question his methods. Having managed to qualify for the World Cup finals in such spectacular fashion, the country was certain that they would have a good shot at reaching the second round. Against New Zealand, Weiss’s men seemed tense and nervous and once they managed to score a goal, many were shocked to see that towards the end of the match, their Coach opted to substitute the strikers with like players instead of bolstering the defence to protect their lead. Having conceded a painful goal in injury time, the Slovaks were left frustrated, angry and worried. The agonising loss of two points proved too big a hurdle for the team to overcome as they collapsed against Paraguay and seemed barely interested in partaking in the match. Marek Hamsik was anonymous as the team relied on either set pieces or long balls to their striker Robert Vittek rather than building play slowly. The midfield played too far behind the strikers and thus it seemed impossible for the team to manage a goal and they only produced one worthwhile effort in the 92nd minute.
Sounds familiar, does it not? The Azzurri enjoyed the lion’s share of ball possession in the match against New Zealand yet spent much of the time crossing the ball into the box much to the Whites’ delight as their strength lies in the air. With tall men capable of defending their goal, Italy ran out of ideas to score and should have played the ball to feet like Domenico Criscito mentioned in his post match comments. The full-backs did not provide a new dimension to the attack as Criscito seemed hesitant to push forward and Alberto Gilardino received absolutely no service yet is still being blamed for Italy’s lack of bite at the top.
Once again, it seems Lippi will opt for new tactics. If he does indeed decide on a 4-3-3, this would mean that Italy will have started three games with three different formations which only serves to further confuse a squad that struggles to act cohesively in attack. If recent reports are proved to be correct then Claudio Marchisio, who seems fed up with all the chopping and changing, will probably be forced to make way for Gennaro Gattuso whilst the Coach toys with the idea of replacing Gilardino with Giampaolo Pazzini. Vincenzo Iaquinta has made no secret of his struggle to play on the flank so if Lippi does decide to play an attacking trident, then Pepe should be the man chosen to play at the top. This would prevent Iaquinta from playing out of position and would allow the Azzurri to benefit from Pepe’s speed, crosses and incredible work ethic. However, bearing in mind the slight altercation between the two at half time in Italy’s last match, the winger is likely to be benched.
The game will almost certainly be a battle of wits. Italy have the upper hand as their combined experience along with their winning mentality usually sees them succeed in major tournaments. Slovakia on the other hand, are struggling to cope with the pressure and their Coach reportedly threatened a journalist on Tuesday confirming the less than calm atmosphere in the Slovakian camp. If Italy can manage to keep their nerves and defend set pieces adequately, as Weiss’s squad are good in the air, then they might just make it through as runners up in Group F where a mouth watering clash against potential Group E winners, Holland awaits.