World Cup 2010 profile – Italy – La Nazionale ready to defend trophy despite chinks in the Azzurri armour

When discussing successful World Cup nations, Italy will be one of the first countries that spring to mind. Having won the tournament on four previous occasions in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006, calcio is a sport that is entrenched in the very fabric of Italian society. Italy is currently rated as fifth in the world and is the current holder of the World Cup.

The Italian Government has often been criticised for its lack of investment in the game with the antiquated nature of the stadiums often cited as a real issue. In order to improve this situation it looks set to pass a bill which will ensure that football clubs are able to secure favourable rates to purchase new grounds. Furthermore €18m has been promised in terms of government funding to improve stadia for the Euro 2016 bid. So much is the passion for football in Italy there are also often funds invested in it that are required for other areas of the country. For example in 2008 €6m of European Union funds intended for the improvement of the ports in the Calabria region was instead used for promotional purposes for the national side.

Serie A is made up of 20 teams and contains such names as Juventus, Milan and Inter, all of whom have enjoyed huge success in both domestic and European football. During the mid-1990s the Italian sides were the most successful on the continent, Milan alone has amassed seven European Cup wins – most recently in 2003 and 2007. Italian football has a total of 11 European Cup triumphs – only bettered by Spain – and have (including 2010) appeared in a total of 26 finals.

Despite teams from other European countries having more success in recent European competition, the vast majority of Italian players still ply their trade at home. In the possible World Cup squad, there is only Giuseppe Rossi based outside Italy, whilst Bayern’s Luca Toni is on loan back in Italy at Roma to ensure his place in the squad. Despite being the current holders and finishing top of their qualifying group above the Republic of Ireland, the Azzurri have struggled of late with the 2009 Confederations Cup proving a possible indictor to their current standings amongst the world’s elite. Italy started well with a win over the USA but was then subject to a poor defeat at the hands of Egypt and were taken apart by Brazil.

Going into the tournament as the current holders, Italy will be under a huge amount of pressure both from the world’s media and their own fanatical support with a place in the quarter-finals the bare minimum required. Consequently a huge burden will be placed on the shoulders of both Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo. The Juventus goalkeeper has been No 1 for his country for a huge portion of his career and all Italian fans will be praying he maintains his fitness for what at 32 may well be his last World Cup. Pirlo is the linchpin in the Azzurri midfield and it was his creativity and range of passing which was so inspirational in the triumph in 2006. He now looks to be forming a strong partnership with Daniele De Rossi in the centre of the park. As is often the case with most European sides there is little experience of playing at altitude which was clearly a problem during the 2009 Confederations Cup. A high altitude training camp is therefore a must for the Azzurri as part of their preparations.

Another key ingredient of the success in 2006 was the Coach Marcello Lippi. The World Cup-winning Coach has won Serie A five times and the Champions League once during two successful spells with Juventus in which he was twice named the world’s best football manager. Lippi then transferred this club success into international leading the Azzurri to their triumph in 2006. He is regarded as one of the best in the history of the game and will be hoping to add another piece of history to a glittering career. Lippi returned to the Azzurri after Roberto Donadoni’s unsuccessful spell but has kept Donadoni’s much-criticised 4-3-3 formation on the team. Seen as stripping the front-line of creativity, Lippi has relented to pressure in recent months, experimenting with no less than six other formations. For the 4-3-3 to work, Lippi’s best bet will be in convincing Francesco Totti to return to the team.

The squad is made up of 16/17 untouchables that Lippi prefers working with, and regardless of club form they will be selected for the tournament. Most competition for places lies in attack with Rossi and Toni competing with Giampaolo Pazzini for a spot, and at centre-back where fitness and experience beyond the first three choices is an issue.

There are several areas of the pitch la Nazionale remain vulnerable, particularly on the right-wing with no viable, experienced back-up to the out-of-sorts Mauro Camoranesi, whilst confidence in Fabio Grosso at left-back is also at a low. The reliance on Pirlo to provide the defence-splitting passes could be the side’s undoing, with several European teams able to stop the No 21’s play with a man-marker. The squad is also a couple of injuries away from being made up of highly promising, but inexperienced youngsters that could make or break the campaign in South Africa.

The Federazione Italiana Gioco Calcio (FIGC) clearly feel that they have the right man in charge in Lippi, now it must be up to the cigar-smoking Coach and his players to again prove they have the quality to go all the way.

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