Italy vs. New Zealand – Kiwis provide final warm-up test

In the final warm-up match before the FIFA Confederations Cup kicks off next week, Italy prepare to meet fellow competition participants New Zealand in Atteridgeville, South Africa. The Azzurri will be hoping to build upon their positive display against Northern Ireland in Pisa last Saturday and set the tone for a successful stint on the African continent.

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The tournament itself is one that will hold much precedence and importance for la Nazionale for next summer’s World Cup in South Africa in terms of confidence and realisation. An impressive display in the Confederations Cup will portray that Italy are able to provide strong competition in South Africa next year, ending their relative drop in form since Euro 2008. It will further provide youngsters such as 18-year-old Davide Santon and Villarreal’s Giuseppe Rossi the platform needed to prove themselves on the world stage and cement their place in an aging Italy line-up over the next year. Indeed if they show as much maturity and promise against New Zealand as in their last outing against Northern Ireland, then they should have no problems in finding themselves as mainstays in the national team line-up for years to come.

The New Zealand game itself is one that could have a large bearing on how Italy performs in South Africa, and therefore how capable they are of defending the FIFA World Cup in the same country in 12 months time. A convincing win is expected of the world champions and anything less could be pivotal with their opening game coming against a much stronger USA team in a week’s time on June 8. As a result Italy will be looking to build on both their impressive team and individual performances against Northern Ireland and record a confident victory against the Oceania Nations Cup winners.

New Zealand after all has been far from impressive over the last 12 months. Although they are comfortably placed in their World Cup Qualifying table, they currently sit in 82nd place in the recent FIFA World Rankings – a full 55 places behind Italy’s last warm-up opponents Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the Kiwis have not won since September last year, when they beat New Caledonia in a World Cup Qualifier. Since then they have lost at home to Fiji in November and away to Thailand just a few months ago, before more recently losing to Tanzania and drawing away to Botswana at the beginning of this month. Italy will therefore be expected to completely outplay their opponents, but surely, and with all due respect given to New Zealand, perhaps it would have been far more appropriate for Italy to have had a longer or more challenging warm up before their debut in an increasingly prestigious tournament – especially with heavyweights Brazil and Spain competing for the same trophy, and a guaranteed meeting with the South Americans on June 21 in the final game of the group stages.

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Anything less than a win for the Azzurri against New Zealand will cast serious doubts on Coach Marcello Lippi’s tactical and personnel choices as well as delivering a huge confidence blow to the world champions. However, even if an expected comprehensive performance is attained it will perhaps not be a realistic indication of the Azzurri’s current level of competitiveness. A similar situation can be observed from just three years ago when then world champions Brazil warmed up to defend their world crown at the FIFA World Cup 2006. Facing New Zealand on June 4, 2006 just prior to the tournament kicking off, Brazil ran out easy 4-0 winners, yet the lack of competition from their opponents meant no areas of weakness in Brazil’s attack or defence were highlighted or subsequently addressed, due to not being properly tested by a far less able New Zealand side. As a result they suffered with lacklustre performances and exited fairly early in the quarter-final stage.

Lippi will almost certainly stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation that was utilised against Northern Ireland, yet with changed personnel this could revert to a more recognisable 4-3-3 formation. After a stunning first goal for the Azzurri and a great assist for Pasquale Foggia’s goal it’s probable that Giuseppe Rossi will start once more. If a 4-2-3-1 system is adopted then hopefully he could feature in a more central position, as that is where he is able to contribute to his fullest potential and was at his best against Northern Ireland. Should he be utilised centrally Rossi would be able to provide creative support for Luca Toni who will almost certainly be the focal point of the Azzurri attack. Or if Lippi uses a 4-3-3, Rossi could flank Toni with either Vincenzo Iaquinta or Alberto Gilardino as the other possible supporting striker. Another youngster, Santon, could also be given the opportunity to impress again following what Lippi described as a performance which “displayed personality and authority” against Northern Ireland, and should he feature against New Zealand he could line up alongside Fabio Cannavaro, who will be twice his age in September.

After completing half the game against Northern Ireland, Gennaro Gattuso is close to fully recovering from knee surgery, and he should man the midfield where he can provide cover for the back four whilst allowing Milan teammate Andrea Pirlo and Roma’s Daniele De Rossi room in midfield to link to the attack. Hopefully the many changes which are expected for Italy’s final warm-up game will not prevent them from playing the dynamic and fast flowing football demonstrated in Pisa against Northern Ireland, which led to their first two goals, while also allowing those players who missed out in the previous game to demonstrate why they will be the backbone for la Nazionale’s Confederations Cup campaign.

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However, as with virtually all commentaries on the Azzurri recently and given the proximity of next year’s World Cup and the lack of opportunities for experimenting with players in that time, it was hoped by many that Antonio Cassano would have been featured in the Confederations Cup squad, especially given that older players Giuseppe Mascara and Sergio Pellissier were called up in reward for their fine seasons at club level. Cassano too had a very impressive season at Sampdoria, yet unlike Mascara and Pellissier who have already turned 30, the soon to be 27-year-old Cassano has just entered the prime of his career and would undoubtedly add to the creativity and flair to be offered by Rossi in 2010. It remains to be seen, partly in the game against New Zealand but more importantly in the subsequent Confederations Cup, if the current Italy squad has enough creativity and attacking talent to offer to get past more challenging opponents.

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