Italy must now look to the stars of the future after early exit

Defending champions Italy were dumped out of the World Cup on Thursday by a Slovakia team they were widely expected to beat, despite the prior two poor performances in the group matches.

The Azzurri found themselves two-down with 20 minutes to go, with defensive lapses again costing them dear. Antonio Di Natale’s tap-in gave Italy late hope, as they only needed a draw to progress (as long as the Paraguay-New Zealand game finished goalless, which it did), and controversy reigned at 2-1 as substitute Fabio Quagliarella was adjudged to be in an offside position when he bundled the ball in from close range. Replays suggest it was a tight decision. La Nazionale’s heads dropped when Kamil Kopunek lobbed Federico Marchetti to make it 3-1 to the Slovakians, and Quagliarella’s exquisite chip in the final few minutes was too litte too late for the holding Champions.

Take nothing away from Slovakia; they vastly improved on their dismal showing in the first two games. They were much the better team throughout and created a lot of chances and put them away well. They will most likely face the Netherlands in the last-16 in a tough tie, but just making it out of the group will bring joy to the people back home.

As for Italy, it can be argued they were ill equipped for this tournament as far back as two years ago. With largely the same core of players that lifted football’s ultimate prize in 2006, Euro 2008 saw Italy limp out at the quarter-final stage, narrowly progressing out of the group. Marcello Lippi came back into the helm to try to turn the sinking ship around; however he kept even more faithfully to his “champions” than his predecessor Roberto Donadoni. The real turning point should have occurred in the embarrassing elimination by Egypt in last year’s Confederations Cup. The former Juventus tactician should have seen that the 2006 heroes had passed their prime – with Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso and Fabio Grosso in particular struggling. The cries from the media and the fans in Italy to bring in flair player, Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli and Fabrizo Miccoli fell on deaf ears, as Lippi termed them “disruptive influences” who would destroy the club-like atmosphere he had built.

Lippi’s choices were alarming to say the least; he included the core of Juventus’ defence, which had had one of their worst seasons in years, defensively. The forward options were not much better. Vincenzo Iaquinta- missing for most of Juventus’ miserable season, Alberto Gilardino and Antonio Di Natale had meager scoring records for the Azzurri and talented strikers Giampaolo Pazzini and Quagliarella were hardly used during the tournament, which was a determent to the squad, as Quagliarella proved a hand-full when coming on and provided a bit of spark. The decision to omit the star of their Confederations Cup nightmare, Giuseppe Rossi was equally baffling.

Andrea Pirlo’s injury on the eve of Italy’s 2010 campaign was a hammer blow for a side that lacked creativity without him, due to Lippi’s stubbornness in not picking Cassano or Francesco Totti. The first two games without Pirlo demonstrated the lack of creativity with lackluster draws. Lippi could not settle on a preferred formation, changing from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 often. The inexperienced- but talented, Claudio Marchisio was shoved into the creative role- despite not playing there regularly and out on the wing when that did not work. Marchisio should get a chance to play more centrally in the future. When Pirlo did make his first appearance at this World Cup against Slovakia the team became confident that their main creative force was back and the final 15 minutes saw a much more attacking Italy, albeit since they had no other choice.

Other players that let the team down included: Iaqunita, Di Natale and Simone Pepe, who were all ineffectual out wide and up front and lacked pace to trouble the opposing full-backs. Ultimately Lippi’s second stint with the national team will be seen as a failure and the Cesare Prandelli era will begin next month with a mixture of optimism and caution for the future.

Prandelli is known for nurturing young players, from his time as manager of Parma and Fiorentina and he will be given the task of creating the next generation of stars for the four-time winners. Out will go Cannavaro, Gattuso, Iaqunita, Gilardino, Di Natale, Camoranesi and others and in their place should emerge players such as: Mario Balotelli, Salvatore Bocchetti, Leonardo Bonnucci, Andrea Cossu, Antonio Candreva, Andrea Ranocchia, Alberto Paloschi, Federico Macheda, Davide Santon and Salvatore Sirigu. Unlike Lippi, Prandelli will be forced to dispense with the veterans; such was their showing in South Africa. It will however, be important to find the right balance between youth and experience, so expect at least a few of the veterans to remain, to lend experience and help the younger players develop, as they could struggle initially.

The Euro 2012 qualifiers and the finals will no doubt be rebuilding phases, as Italy looks to repair its tattered footballing image. The future looks fairly bright, and it is now up to Prandelli to usher it in.

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