Building a winning machine can be difficult, but Marcello Lippi is more than up for the challenge. He went into Italy’s World Cup qualifying match against the Republic of Ireland with a must-win mentality, despite ultimately settling for draw achieved by the hard work and never-say-die attitude from La Nazionale. Italy are currently sitting pretty at the top of their group with 21 points, this is about more than mere points however – it’s about national pride and reminding everyone why they are the World Champions.
Italy went into the game against the Republic of Ireland having achieved back-to-back wins. The first, against Georgia, was made easier by two gifts from Kakha Kaladze, the Georgian hit the back of his own net twice, and even though Italy improved dramatically against Bulgaria, winning the game 2-0, after 45 minutes they started getting careless and giving the ball away. While the Azzurri did not complete a third straight victory last night, they did secure top place in their qualifying group. Alberto Gilardino was the hero for the Italians, breaking Irish hearts with his last gasp equalizer and despite the Republic still being guaranteed a play-off spot, thanks to Cyprus beating Bulgaria 4-1, they will, nevertheless, feel disappointed. Having scored late on themselves, with a goal that appeared to be the winner, their dreams of achieving an historic win were shattered by the Fiorentina forward.
Italy must look back at this game and try to understand how they were unable to beat the Irish. Although they have qualified, they played under unnecessarily pressure, of their own making. Ireland scored both their goals from set plays – the first resulted from a mistimed tackle by Nicola Legrottaglie, who looked uncomfortable all night, and the second from complacency and a lack of concentration from the Italians, 3 minutes from time. This should be an area of concern for Lippi and an area of focus in the future. Italy were also hampered last night by tiredness of the players, almost their undoing despite the good performance. However, Italian legend, Gigi Riva, believes: “Italy are better now than in 2006.” That is still too early to say and only lifting of World Cup in triumph could prove this statement correct. Giorgio Chiellini offered a more realistic analysis of Italy’s performance: “It would have been a shame to lose a game we dominated.” Yet, while domination of a game is all good and well, taking full advantage of the opportunities would have been even better. Some would argue that Italy should have won the game, if not for Iaquinta’s shot on goal that was curiously flagged as off-side. The Juventus forward will believe he was cheated and denied the opportunity of become an Azzurri hero.
In the end however, a draw was all they needed for qualification, which was their main objective. Lippi was extremely proud of the way the boys in blue played, saying: “We played with character, grit and quality.” While also acknowledging that each player was: “eager and enthusiastic to contribute to the match.” This mentality should be remembered when they play against a very unpredictable Cyprus. Who, last night, proved they should not be underestimated – even though Italy will be at the World Cup next year, if they could remain unbeaten in the qualifying stages, this would be the icing on the cake. Ireland will have to go through the play-offs to grab a spot for the finals in South Africa next year and will be irritated at this, having been so close to automatic qualification. Giovanni Trapattoni admitted that his side: “Could have won the game with a little bit of experience.” A win against Italy would have put Ireland within 1 point of top spot and they will be feeling disappointed at letting this opportunity slip through their fingers, particularly after their impressive showing last night. However, as Trap said before, they are an inexperienced side and will learn from that game.
This performance showed Italy what they are made of and what they need to work on, as defender Gianluca Zambrotta pointed out: “We need to improve in the air.” They also need to improve at set-pieces, as they concede both the goals in this manner. From this game, Lippi should be comforted by the fact that even when his side were losing 2-1, with only three minutes remaining, they never lost heart and still believed in themselves, finally producing a result. It may have not been the result that they desired but it was what they needed.