Now October asserts itself, bringing with it a flurry of media news and a legion of chrysanthemums. Autumn is the season of tragedy, according to Northrop Frye. The time when great empires and glittering cities bow down into nameless mud and murk. If that is the case, then it certainly befits the Italian national team at the moment – champions of the world and conquerors of everything in football a few years ago and now incapable of coming to terms with the death and implosion of its own ageing stars. The blue shirts look faded, more than they have done in a while.
The call-ups were released a few days ago. Essentially, give or take a few names, Marcello Lippi is planning on starting the Juventus squad. How relieving. Those players were so tired that they got kicked in the face by Palermo (2-0), and now we should expect them to repeat themselves with the Azzurri shirt. It will be interesting to see how long Fabio Grosso lasts on the pitch before vanishing from the game (we are estimating 60 minutes, his average). A few of them will be given some rest, such as Fabio Cannavaro, who is suspended. Claudio Marchisio too is unavailable (injury), and he will be replaced by another soldier of autumn, Gennaro Gattuso. A ‘welcome return,’ some sources in the press have called it. Except that this is not a return, it is an exhumation. Gattuso is no longer the tiger that makes the world roll under the thrust of his heel, he is only a skin filled with dust.
Lippi was sensitive to the mood as well. ‘Mi avete stufato,’ he responded to the journalists who inquired on the exclusion of Antonio Cassano. It means that they have exhausted him and are getting on his nerves (so if nothing else the sentiment is mutual, Mr. Confederations Cup). It also suggests that he too is tired. Aren’t we all? One may expect the only vitality to come from the Irish. Who knows how this game may go. The men from the land of Guinness seem set to honour their drink by giving us freshness (in their team) and a tribal union (in their stadium), the likes of which the Italian team is very much shorn of. They also have a far greater drive. Were it not for the loss of some of their men to injury, we would call this game for them.
Lippi can be expected to field the 4-3-1-2 once more, after the success experienced with this against the Bulgarians. We mentioned in our Italy Camp Focus after the above game that the effectiveness of the formation was not dependable, at least not yet. Too much had resulted from the surprise effect of having Andrea Pirlo playing in the position of trequartista for the first time at international level (that, and the awful performance of the Bulgarians). Now that the ace is out of the sleeve, we may expect countermeasures. Republic of Ireland Coach Giovanni Trapattoni, possibly the greatest defensivist since Priam harnessed the city of Troy against the troops of Agamemnon, is guaranteed to do everything in his power to stifle Pirlo. Expect some very heavy man-marking, and given the Rossonero’s age, will he be able to fend it off?
Ireland plays with a very thick, very rough midfield. It is exactly the kind of thing that the Azzurri tend to suffer (alongside fast counters, though that is a different story). The Irish have the possibility of dominating, but Trapattoni’s style is so retentive that they will probably sit back most of the time. At the very most, we may expect them to play aggressively until they earn a lead, only to retreat and form a phalanx right after that. Given that the Azzurri are hardly the most dynamic of teams themselves and that Pirlo could be flattened out, this is shaping up to be a dreadfully boring game. Lippi claims that they are not going to play for the draw, but it looks like even that is far from guaranteed.
It is hard to say how a supporter must feel before a game like this. Obviously we all want Italy to qualify, but the current management is shaping a team of such decadence that shock therapy may be the only cure. At the same time, Lippi has proved over and over that he is invulnerable to shocks – he does not want to learn his own lessons. What worth is anything, then? Perhaps this is the reason behind the atmosphere of autumn that pervades Italian football so strongly, these days. Our giants are collapsing (Milan), our best players are ignored or foreign (Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini, Stevan Jovetić). Public sources and anecdotal evidence alike would have people united in a feeling – that if we go into the summer like this, we are not going to win the World Cup. This season our team is a beautiful idle woman, bored and tipsy. We look at her like people who are conscious of some coming disaster, yet we have forgotten how to tell her. Around her chrysanthemums, the flowers of autumn, bloom to herald the funerals of a generation deep in winter.