It’s kick-off time for the Confederations Cup, and the gigantic shadow thrown by the World Cup (suddenly so imminent) seems impossible to shake off. Gennaro ‘the Growl’ Gattuso recently growled that the team is not there for fun’s sake and that they genuinely aim to win the Cup. It was a response to the statement we have so often been given by the media – that this tournament is a ‘dress rehearsal’ for the World Cup and the purpose of its matches to field-test the team and players. The proposition holds some truth, but there are further layers of meaning which the media in particular should be very much aware of. Presently, this event represents Coach Marcello Lippi’s personal opportunity to shut us all up. The fisherman from Viareggio has been under enormous pressure due to his consistency-slash-stubbornness on a number of issues – the vendetta against Antonio Cassano, the dysfunctional formation, the glacial pace at which rejuvenation is taking place and other more or less respectable questions. This site condemned some of Lippi’s choices regarding the above questions, so this is the time to show us (and everybody else) just how wrong we were. The game is on you, Marcello.
Speaking of game, before the Azzurri’s tournament begins and the judgments are cast, it would do us all well to inject some realism into our expectations. So let us begin by recalling that Lippi’s game is gritty, effective and inexorable, but it is not beautiful. It never has been, not even in 2006. Anyone who wishes to measure the growth of the Italian team in terms of how kinetic its football is will walk home with some pretty dark prospects, whatever the outcome of the tournament. Italy’s game will be defensive and often infuriating, in keeping with tradition. We may call Lippi a romantic. Yet for all the tenacity displayed by his team(s), the cornerstone by which we may evaluate his work remains results – that is to say, the man’s specialty. So far we have been snobbish of his dreary victories in the World Cup qualifiers on account of the mediocrity of the opposition. Now the objection no longer holds. The tournament is serious and Italy’s opponents range from medium to heavy weights. If Lippi wins or reaches the final, then it may be time to take our hats off and admit that the best football, at least when garbed in the Azzurro, is ugly rather than pretty, experienced rather than energetic. If the results are unconvincing, then it will be the last call for a reform (Of course, the most baffling outcome would be for Italy to crash out early and show a really beautiful game, but don’t hold your breath for that).
Italy’s first game pitches them against the USA. It is a tricky starter, the kind which makes you thankful for the pre-tournament warm-up matches. Given the impetus of the Americans (moral as much as physical), the boys in blue could easily be stepping into a defeat if they were walking unprepared. They still could. Not all of the players have been given some running time, and among the inert has been Daniele De Rossi, who will be confronting several ghosts from his past against the USA. His one game against them in 2006 was the stage for his most ignominious act – the elbowing of Brian McBride and the Roman’s subsequent send-off. “It is a stain I shall forever bear on my career,” declared De Rossi a few days ago, “and it will never happen again.” Time to make good on the words.
While the presence of De Rossi is unlikely to lose Italy any points, the absence of Fabio Cannavaro very well might. The captain is out for injury, making it the second tournament in a row which he skips for the same reason (let’s hope he makes the next one). His loss is very worrying – in a game like this, an opener against a tough and highly motivated opponent, experience means everything. It doesn’t make things any easier that Nicola Legrottaglie, his natural substitute, should be injured as well. Alessandro Gamberini could see the greens, and his recent performance against New Zealand is quite distant from being encouraging. Fortunately the posts behind him will be defended by Gianluigi Buffon rather than Marco Amelia (the latter still an overestimated keeper in this writer’s opinion), who will make for a much more challenging guardian to beat. His positioning skills alone should be enough to halve defensive dangers, given how the main threats posed by the Americans depend on aerial game and set-pieces.
Other thoughts on the match. De Rossi is not the only one who will be facing ghosts – Giuseppe Rossi will come face to face with his New Jersey heritage, and it will be a true test of nerves for him if he is fielded. Something about having ‘Rossi’ in one’s surname does not agree with the United States apparently, perhaps it is the vaguely Communist resonance. Alberto Gilardino is the most in-form of the strikers and it is to be hoped that he plays (over Luca Toni). It is also to be hoped that he is awarded good service by the wings and the midfield – the 4-2-3-1 formation normally wastes his talents completely. The full-backs are facing an interesting ballotage on both sides of the pitch, and it remains to be seen whether Lippi will favour the lymph of Davide Santon and Marco Motta or the veteran know-how of Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso. Our prediction – Zambrotta and Grosso. Our preference – Zambrotta and Santon.
Our final thoughts go to the black horse of the blue squad. Fabio Quagliarella has always been a bit of a mystery, blessed with an impressive talent but undermined by a somewhat provincial mentality. His chances to impress with the Azzurri have been rather few, and to break this trend, it would be good to see him give his utter best at the Confederations Cup. The man is no Cassano, nor does he resemble predecessors Alessandro Del Piero or Francesco Totti, but he is the only one in the Azzurri attack who plays in their role. Toni and Gilardino are prima puntas (finishers), Giuseppe Rossi and Vincenzo Iaquinta are seconda puntas (runners). Quagliarella alone is familiar with the multifarious demands of dribbling, passing and unpredictable shooting involved in building bridges between the midfield and the offence. In the 4-3-3 set-up, his role is indispensable. It is up to him, then, to convince us that the team and the formation can work even without Cassano. If he is given playing time, even if he doesn’t start, it could tell us whether his skills work on a global stage or if they are constrained to the local. Other topical threads will come into the spotlight as the drama of the tournament unfolds, but while that happens, keep an eye open for this kid. There is a lot to be learned about him.
June 6, 2009 – 19:50 – Arena Garibaldi, Pisa
Italy 3-0 Northern Ireland – Rossi 19, Foggia 52, Pellissier 73
June 10, 2009 – 19:50 – Super Stadium, Pretoria
Italy 4-3 New Zealand – Gilardino 33, 48, Iaquinta 68, 73; Smeltz 13, Killen 42, pen 57
June 15, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy vs. USA
June 18, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
Italy vs. Egypt
June 21, 2009 – 20:30 – Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Italy vs. Brazil
June 24-25, 2009 – both 20:30 – Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein & Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
June 28, 2009 – 15:00 – Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg
Third place play-off
June 28, 2009 – 20:30 – Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg