It will be interesting to see how Italy will perform against Cyprus tomorrow. If the players are not too hungover to stand on their feet after the post-Dublin celebrations, they should achieve a comfortable win. It will be, if nothing else, the first time that we shall see the team relaxed, playing free from pressure. If this is enough for the players to play like they know, then the result could even be a massacre. Keep an eye out for Antonio Di Natale – meaningless games are his absolute specialty, and he could score a brace if he is fielded.
As David Swan pointed out in our Azzurri Analysis, the sense of relief and celebration belies the fact that a draw (two draws, in fact) against Republic of Ireland are not a very comforting result. Italy is the best among the mediocre, but they are mediocre among the best, as the two sonorous defeats against Brazil demonstrate. Bizarrely, the Confederations Cup appears to have been removed from everyone’s subconscious when Lippi comes forth for the interviews. We, on the other hand, have forgotten nothing about it. The team has a long way to go. So the question becomes – now what?
There are eight months between now and the World Cup. As it is, the team is going nowhere. Obviously it needs to be strengthened and given greater focus and technical skill. The polemics around Antonio Cassano are certain to explode, and perhaps even those on other figures (Francesco Totti, for example). But if Lippi’s policies so far are anything to go by, the squad itself is bound to change very little. The only reshuffling may take place in the central midfield, where Alberto Aquilani or even Riccardo Montolivo may come to reclaim a spot over Angelo Palombo, and, depending on performances, the starters’ shirt for some of the full-backs may swap shoulders. There is an open call-up race among a number of central defenders too, but only for the bench.
Marcello Lippi has a talent for contradicting anyone who is interviewing him – when his teams are playing well, he proclaims dissatisfaction and points out soft spots or shortcomings. It is therefore quite telling that he should have spent the last three months praising everything that this national team does, including the latest draw against Ireland. If Italy had lost, it would have been ‘an injustice.’ Debatable, really – the Irish certainly showed greater drive and courage. Also, the team ‘showed character.’ The latter comment is the most popular reading of the team’s angry reaction when snatching a late equaliser at the 89th minute, and it is worth pausing upon. Apparently, it was a proof of personality and strength of will, and this makes it a very positive sign. The reading itself is not fallacious as much as it is somewhat facile. It was less the Azzurri pride than the Irish inexperience which allowed for the curtains to close on catharsis. Giovanni Trapattoni understood this better than anyone else as he walked off the pitch furious, ranting against the ‘bad habits’ that Irish players have picked up in the Northern leagues (note, between the Coach of the Irish and the champion of the world Italians, which of the two is dissatisfied with the draw). He is right, too. How a team can concede on a counter when leading by a goal three minutes from the end of the game is baffling. Ireland let it slip, but a team like France or England will not, and no amount of Azzurri ‘pride’ is going to change that.
The argument on character, then, is less a reflection of the team’s true qualities than a red herring employed to disguise (negate?) its real deficiencies. The team has no technical solutions coming forward. The strikers fielded were two fast-paced runners with little individual technique (yes, Di Natale can pull off some tricks, but only when playing against a team of farmers or bank employees). The formations fielded so far include no supportive wingers, meaning that the full-backs are often left to their own devices – so often Fabio Grosso galloped forwards only to be left isolated and cut off while the strikers crowded in the box. Most importantly, the midfield is still dysfunctional. Pirlo, Palombo and Daniele De Rossi did not work well together, all gathering in the same spaces and waiting for someone else to do something interesting. They were reactive rather than proactive. This defect alone is enough to cause Italy its downfall when the tournament comes along and its resolution must be placed at the top of Lippi’s list of priorities.
It is a long way to Tipperary, some used to say, and it is a long way to South Africa as well. There is space for much to be done, and our hope is that much will indeed be done. It is too early to say whether Italy stand a chance of winning the summer’s big booty. The team in its current state would barely make it to the quarter-finals, as mentioned previously, but hopefully it will grow. In the meantime, we would do best not to be blinded by temporary flashes to interpret them as proofs of concrete, substantial quality (‘character’ it was with the Irish, it will be something else tomorrow). Lippi pointed out that teams like Portugal and Sweden were struggling far below Italy’s levels, so his team ‘can’t be that bad.’ That is because Portugal and Sweden are far below Italy’s level, by history and technical roster both. Sure enough, these kids are not ‘bad.’ What they are is mediocre. Now you have eight months to make them ‘good,’ Marcello. Pull your sleeves back. Qualifying for the tournament should be seen as a mandatory step for the Azzurri, not as an achievement. It is the cup itself that will give all verdicts. Your work has only just begun.