Italy vs. Republic of Ireland – The Old Master returns

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It could be a battle for the ages as two of the best Coaches in Italian football history go head to head on Wednesday night – Marcello Lippi, the tightlipped tactician seeks to keep the ship steady on course and practically guarantee qualification with a win. While Giovanni Trapattoni, the supreme results man, hopes to pull off one of the biggest coups of his illustrious career by sinking his beloved Italy.

Italy’s recent win against Montenegro was the very definition of unspectacular, creating just a handful of chances during a lackluster game which also saw them compromised defensively on a number of occasions – despite the modest attacking threat they faced. Certain things became apparent during that game and it’s worth running through them to understand the challenges they, and Coach Lippi, face not only on Wednesday evening in Bari, but in South Africa – should they qualify.

Firstly, as glorious a servant he’s been, Fabio Cannavarro is becoming a liability. He is too frequently out of position and his tackles always seem to be last ditch attempts to avoid catastrophe. There is no question that he will command the team admirably in South Africa, however Lippi should keep him on his toes. Another season in Madrid, playing in a backline that seems unconcerned with conceding goals is no way to sharpen up for the World Cup. A move back to Napoli, or even a season in Milan would be advisable.

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It also became clear that as an attacking unit, the Azzurri are defunct. As David Swan has previously recommended elsewhere on these pages, the forward line of Antonio Di Natale, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Fabio Quagliarella should be swiftly axed. Although a torn knee ligament will keep Toto out of the side for some time, he had no right to claim a place in the starting line-up in the first place. He is out of form and too peripheral for La Nazionale, creating nothing and not fulfilling his role as a positive outlet for the midfield. Quagliarella is limited to the spectacular and when his wonder-strikes are not forthcoming he looks like a provincial player. Iaquinta can be a decent impact substitute and no one can deny his heroic effort levels, but it’s just not enough.

The omission of a genuine fantasista was painful to witness and Lippi must give in, surely, to the overwhelming pressure to pick the in-form Antonio Cassano. Talentino is playing the most consistently dazzling football of his career and Lippi needs to bring him in right now, so that he can gel with the team in games that matter. Playing Simone Pepe or Antonio Di Natale instead of Cassano makes Lippi – one of the best Coaches in the world – look like a novice.

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Against Montenegro, it took until eight minutes into the second half for Italy to create a second real effort on goal and that came from shoot-at-the-keeper specialist Daniele De Rossi. Lippi must find invention and incision in his ranks and both can be achieved by pairing the reborn Giampaolo Pazzini and the devilish Giuseppe Rossi. Pazzini is hitting career-high-form and Rossi has been excelling for two years now, and is far more deserving of an opportunity than those who have mysteriously been selected before him.

Whether Lippi sticks to 4-3-2-1 or a more traditional 4-4-2 against a typically rigid Trap team is practically irrelevant. What’s important is that they rediscover the verve and guile that defined his 2006 Champions. Although Andrea Pirlo had a hand in both goals (scoring one and an indirect assist on the other), he is playing too far up the field to show his true worth. He is not at his best when harried into decisions and should retreat to his deep-lying role to pull the strings from the back. Pirlo is an absolute master at dictating the tempo of a game and in 2006 he short-passed the opposition to death, suckering them again and again, draining their energy and motivation. Why Lippi has tinkered with this essential function of the team is unfathomable.

Qualification is the only requirement and a victory against the Irish will practically guarantee that modest but necessary achievement. But as defending champions, Lippi must give the tifosi some indication his team can make a valiant defence, when the time comes. The increasingly stilted displays and screaming lack of invention and dynamism is sinking the hearts of Azzurri fans at the moment. The team looks turgid and uninventive. Recalling Cassano and playing Rossi is not Lippi’s only way of injecting life into the starting 11. Pasquale Foggia and Ricardo Montolivo are two players that understand link-up play and have bags of creative flair. If they’re good enough to be in the squad, they’re good enough to be on the pitch and they offer a level of invention sorely required right now.

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With De Rossi and Angelo Palombo in the side, Lippi can afford to let a few players off the leash, taking the game aggressively to teams without giving too much ground. Surely the benefits of creating more than three paltry chances in a game outweigh the dangers of putting a little extra pressure on an extremely capable defence and a supremely gifted portiere. And why not call Giovinco into the side as an impact substitute? Experience of the senior set-up and a few minutes on the pitch would be invaluable to his development. Besides, if Simone Perrotta were fit, there’s no doubt he’d be in the squad – and he hasn’t had a decent game for two years. So, if Lippi is going with form (and any other selection criteria is hard to justify), then Seba is a valid option.

A further alternative, later down the line, would be for Lippi to submit to the obligatory act of asking Totti to return to the side. Roma’s fantasista in residence offers much to a team desperate for a spark of magic. Although currently semi-crippled by muscle injuries, should Totti react well to a much-needed rest over the summer, playing him in a select few internationals to reacquaint him with the team gives Lippi an option he just doesn’t have at present.

One thing’s for sure, Trappatoni is not going to make it easy for the Azzurri. His team is comprised of capable but unremarkable players who have struggled to score goals, both home and away. Without the enigmatic (and rather overweight) Andy Reid and the “retired” Stephen Ireland, the Republic have no flair or style other than the grit and spit that every Trappatoni team displays. But so often, the most successful Italian coach currently in the game has turned that spit into polish.

In a recent Eurosport interview, the “grand master” of Italian football stated that, “It is important for us to win in Italy, but also that we don’t lose” – which should give Lippi, if he needed it, a clear idea of Trap’s intention to dig in. In Paul McShane, Kevin Kilbane, Richard Dunne and John O’Shea, Italy’s front two (or three) will find robust defenders well capable of dominating physically. Here, Luca Toni’s monster-like presence will be sorely missed. However, Rossi (should he play) and Pazzini are mobile enough to cause the rather lumbering back four no-end of torment on the ground.

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In midfield, Pirlo, De Rossi and Palombo should have no trouble with Championship journeymen-in-the-making Liam Miller and Stephen Hunt. But they should not be complacent when it comes to Robbie Keane or Kevin Doyle upfront, as both are resourceful, natural goalscorers. Giorgio Chiellini and Cannavaro should be able to deal with what comes their way, allowing Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta opportunities to drive up the wing. Given the lack of creativity in the current Azzurri set up, much responsibility rests with the full backs and their ability to provide the strikers with consistent service in and around the box. Their weak performances (in an attacking sense) against Montenegro must be redressed on Wednesday.

In theory Trapattoni should have no answer to the quality Italy possess. However, he has built his career on grinding results and after the disappointing home draw to Bulgaria, he will be keen to show his former bosses just what they’re missing. The current Republic team is not too dissimilar to his 2004 Azzurri – hardworking and lucky when it doesn’t really count but prone to lapses in concentration and unfortunate when it matters. Let’s hope that trend continues on Wednesday.

Of course, the Italian media have been circling the encounter with great anticipation and in a recent television interview, Trap was inundated with praise. His response – so typical of a born winner – sheds light on his continuing hunger for success, and that’s why Italy cannot afford to be anything other than at the top of their game.

“There are words, there is history and there are results,” he said. “Italian TV showed a one-hour documentary on my life last week but for me, it is results. The rest does not interest me. It’s about the next game, the next opportunity and now it is Italy. This is the life.”

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When two great Generals face one another, often it is not just the capability of the individual troops that decides the contest. While Italy will be confident and undoubtedly has greater resources on which to draw, Trappatoni is sure he can find other – more cunning – means of securing victory. Let the battle commence.

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