Italy Camp Focus – Last thoughts before the World Cup

Like a spectre drawn from the depths of the underworld into the sunlight, our team has suddenly vanished, less than 100 days from the kick-off to South Africa 2010. About the Italy-Cameroon match our site has written in depth. Here we shall discuss what other matters relate to the Azzurri.

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Italy does not score. When they pointed this out to Marcello Lippi, he was quick to respond: “Yes, but we were missing six or seven players.” Most of these ‘six or seven players’ are offensive names. Now, the number of forwards he means to call up amounts almost certainly to five. If we add the six or seven hypothetical men to the four immanent figures already called up against Cameroon, that makes for a pool of 10 or 11 forwards – more than twice the number required. What is amusing is that only one or two from that ambitious dozen can be confidently excluded from the final list. The rest are all valid candidates. It may be an Italian roulette rather than a Russian one, but it is a roulette all the same.

Italy lacks an identity. There is no more synthetic way of putting it. Ask who their leader is. Captain Fabio Cannavaro? Old and dusty, and putting in such dreadful performances some believe he should be benched. Daniele De Rossi? Out of form. Andrea Pirlo? Out of breath. Ask about their formation and tactics. So many have been tried we have lost count. Nowhere, however, is the problem of identity as critical as in the offence. Nobody knows who is going to play, how and where, and everybody is lamenting the fact that we are walking into this World Cup without an efficient offence. These criticisms are legitimate, but since they have already been iterated, and since we like to offer new perspectives, we shall try and be more positive. The flip side of the coin, in the void of roles, is that there is ample choice. Let us sum things up.

Lippi will almost certainly stick to his own methods and to tradition, so we can expect him to draw out a balance by calling two prime punte, two seconde punte and one fantasista. Alberto Gilardino, Marco Borriello, Luca Toni and Giampaolo Pazzini are the potential prime punte, with Gilardino the only certainty and the remaining three battling it out in terms of form and performance. The seconde punte are Vincenzo Iaquinta, Giuseppe Rossi, Antonio Di Natale and Fabio Quagliarella. The first two are great choices in terrible form, the third is a terrible choice in great form, and the fourth an average choice in average form. There is no way of knowing which two will go to the tournament, although this writer is hoping that the great choices will go back to great form. If not both, at least one of them. As for players like Mauro German Camoranesi, Simone Pepe, Antonio Candreva and Andrea Cossu, they are midfielders (mezzale or trequartisti) and should not be confused with the forwards. They do deserve a discussion of their own, if only because they show a continuation of the overabundance of players (and uncertainties) from the offence to the midfield, but they have nothing to do with prime or seconde punte, nor with fantasisti (except perhaps for Cossu, who is on the borderline).

On this note we come to the final and, alas, most painful category. As all our articles have agreed on, for the first time in 25 years Italy does not have a fantasista. Antonio Cassano is not an option because Lippi does not like his face or his hairstyle or some other such reason, and Alessandro Del Piero, despite claiming to be hopeful, has been so consistently ignored by the Coach we can probably rule him out. That leaves us with Francesco Totti and Mario Balotelli as the only two options – an unlikely return or an unlikely debut. Again, predictions are utterly impossible. Totti has the favour of the Coach but the handicap of form and injuries. Furthermore, the presence of either of these players can upset the pecking order of the others. Totti can cover the role of prima punta and render redundant the call of, say, Pazzini (opening the way for another seconda punta). Also, he would best be flanked by a fast and technical striker like Giuseppe Rossi. Balotelli has enough speed of his own to allow for the employment of a less mobile forward, but he needs some experience by his side, and some finishing power would do no harm either. It would be interesting to find out how he would fare with Toni or Di Natale. All these combinations also require different players in the midfield to support them and therefore end up affecting the shape of the whole team. There is also the possibility, albeit a very, very slim one, that Totti and Balotelli may be called up together, and who knows what could happen then. Regardless, and in the meantime, this must be stated clearly – both players eclipse all the others in terms of talent and it is hard to imagine a good World Cup for the Azzurri without one of them on the plane.

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The cloud of a real crisis of identity hovers over the Italian national team, but there is some consolation to be drawn from the breadth and depth of the nation’s pool of talent, and the potential penetrating power that could be unleashed, if the right aggregate is formed, is very high. It should also be noted that most of our direct competitors are not as inaccessible as they seem. Germany have looked dull and frankly even nervous of late (see Lukas Podolski’s aggression on a journalist a few days ago), and they will draw their strength, as usual, not from their technical resources but from their tremendous motivational powers. France have all of Italy’s own problems and even less hopes of solving them. Argentina appear in growth for the first time, but they are coached by a man of highly dubious competence, and – it is inevitable – it will show. They will also be very vulnerable to guile (furbizia). England are shaking (imploding, even) in what is already their weakest department, the defence, for reasons which have already been only too publicized. This is not to say that Italy are better than all of these teams, nor that they will beat them on a direct confrontation when the day comes. Rather, we wish to point out that their adversaries have some serious weaknesses as well, and that these weaknesses can be exploited if the team is properly organized and the final squad selections prove to be illuminated.

The only rivals who appear truly impregnable are Spain and Brazil, and it does not help that one of them is likely to cross Italy in the quarter-finals. Still, not all hope is lost. Spain still have psychological frailties that belie the magnificent technical elements of their team, and the Confederation Cup only served to confirm that (not that it gave much better signals where Italy is concerned, of course). Brandishing a gun is pointless if you do not have the conviction to use it, and for all their cannons, this could still be the case of the Spaniards. Brazil’s own frailties, on the other hand, are physical. Coach Dunga has structured an interesting team, one which is superb at executing a certain style of high-velocity game, but inflexible when contingent scenarios require different stylistic bends or approaches. However, what really would worry this writer if in their position is the tactical inflexibility of the team is carried over to the individual roles assigned to their players. What this means is the team requires very specific players doing very specific things in order to work smoothly (the formation is a 4-2-3-1 which looks as beautiful and delicate as a crystal pine-tree), and the absence of even one single agent could stop the whole structure from gyrating. This would be passable if all of their players were as solid as Douglas Maicon or Felipe Melo, but when you assign the role of playmaker to someone as unique and simultaneously fragile as Kaka (more injured than healthy this year), or hand the reins of the offence to an equally delicate Robinho, and you throw away options like those provided by Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato, who opened up a world of tactical solutions, well – it strikes us as asking for trouble. No doubt Brazil would have a great plan if they were certain that their entire World Cup was going to be played without injuries or suspensions, but how often has that happened to a team? Maybe ours is just wishful thinking, but Dunga will have a lot of trouble if just one or two of his men turn out to be unavailable in the middle of the tournament. Italy won last time because they were ductile. Brazil, apparently, are trying a more dangerous route.

We close with a thought to the new Italian shirts. “They’re pretty enough, let’s hope they’re lucky as well,” said Cannavaro when examining one, in an echo of Woody Allen’s existentialist reflection in Match Point. The shirts are indeed pretty – the blue is light and friendly in tone, and it has been exempted from those horrendous dark streaks which looked like sweat patches on the 2006 shirts. The away kit is particularly solar, with that golden shield on the chest. It is a shame, however, that the shorts should remain blue, when tradition has always had the Azzurri playing in a blue shirt with white shorts (a more distinguished and celestial mating). Also, it has to be asked who is responsible for writing the names in small letters rather than capitals above the numbers, and why he has not been shot yet. Other than that, all is good in the peninsula.

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