Recent friendly match results – including the match against New Zealand last year – have only served to fuel the pessimistic mind of the Italian nationals who love nothing more than to partake in the nation’s favourite pastime of criticising their beloved Azzurri. A squad that is rapidly ageing, a lack of creativity in addition to the injury of Andrea Pirlo – perhaps the only player who possesses some form of ingenuity- have diminished the team’s credibility and stripped its ‘favourite’ title away.
So what can one expect from the Azzurri in South Africa? Whilst the likes of England have a superb team that struggles to locate its winning mentality, Italy has the opposite problem. Marcello Lippi who sensationally won Italy their fourth World Cup four years ago thanks to a superb team effort as opposed to almighty talent, has lost the faith of the fans that lauded him a hero after the Azzurri’s win in Germany. Team selections aside, he has yet to choose a formation that suits the players he has chosen to take with him and actually stick with it long enough to perfect it. His preferred 4-3-3 formation will need to be shelved for the more appropriate 4-3-1-2 in order to exploit the skills of the current squad. However without Pirlo’s input, one shudders to think of an adequate replacement that could deliver those accurate pinpoint crosses and take charge of set-pieces.
As we saw against the Swiss, the midfield lacks the necessary creativity to aid the attack and without Pirlo, the Azzurri will struggle to retain possession and distribute the ball. Riccardo Montolivo who is thought of to be the only player that could step in to replace the Milan playmaker is good but has struggled when wearing the national colours. Whilst he demonstrated his potential when playing further forward, his laissez-faire approach to defence means that the already awkward back-line have one less man to aid them in their quest to minimise the opposition’s threat. In fact, it was his reluctance to take part in the match that led to Switzerland scoring a goal. Meanwhile Andrea Cossu, the 24th man, will likely be played on the wing as he did in the last friendly – a position that fails to exploit the talent he possesses. In order to allow him a chance at influencing the game, a more central role to act as a bridge between the midfield and forwards would be better suited. As for the wingers who featured in those two games, they need to learn how to pressure the opposition and work on delivering those accurate passes.
The match against Switzerland was a huge improvement to what we saw against Mexico despite Lippi playing a largely second string side. Defensively the Azzurri are weak and the game against Switzerland provided no relief. Both Leonardo Bonucci and Salvatore Bocchetti have struggled in defence despite the recent goal scored by the former, leaving Lippi to depend wholly on the Juventus partnership of Giorgio Chiellini and Fabio Cannavaro – a partnership that conceded 56 league goals for the Bianconeri last season. The full-backs have suffered, venturing too far forward without adequate cover to close the gap they left behind – as seen from Cristian Maggio against Mexico – or they are too defensive thus limiting the attacking potency of the squad.
Great squads are built from the back and no-one is more familiar with the phrase than the Italians. However, much like Juventus have done this season, it looks like the Azzurri will be depending on Gianluigi Buffon’s heroics and Chiellini to marshal a back-line that leaves one feeling nostalgic for the days when the Azzurri fielded true greats like Gaetano Scirea and Claudio Gentile. Let’s be clear, the young additions to the squad are slowly improving and Maggio put in an admirable performance on Saturday and only a lack of cohesion with fellow defenders at the back let him down. However, ‘slowly improving’ is not good enough for the defending champions.
No, the squad is not brilliant nor does it possess players that could change the course of the game. Lack of depth in the squad coupled with its slow pace will prove problematic but one can only hope Lippi’s team unity can get them through to the latter stages. All they need is a scandal which they have tried to create when Claudio Marchisio supposedly said “Roma Ladrona” when singing the national anthem thus provoking certain Italians who have called for his exclusion. Lippi has of course laughed off the suggestions, after all, can anyone think of an adequate replacement?