ONE YEAR TO GO: Will World Champs or World Chumps be flying to South Africa?
To fans of Calcio it’s still as vivid as ever: The vision of Fabio Cannavaro lifting the World Cup aloft remains the proudest of Italian memories in a difficult recent history. But with one year to go before the 19th World Cup Final, Cannavaro and his Azzurri have a lot of hard work to do if the national team are to avoid an embarrassing fate in their defence of the trophy.
A shameful defeat to Egypt and a straightforward thumping by Brazil in the recent Confederations Cup have highlighted Italy’s fall from grace since that golden night in Berlin. Their attempts to evolve into a younger, fresher, more future-friendly outfit have been tempered by a sense of loyalty to the experienced campaigners who tasted glory three years ago.
So with 365 days left in Italy’s fourth reign at football’s summit, just how much catching up does Marcello Lippi’s squad have to do in order to launch a serious challenge for number five? How do the 23 involved in the Confederations Cup match up to the medal winners before them?
What was most stark about Gigi Buffon’s recent claim that Julio Cesar is the best No.1 in Serie A was its widespread acceptance. In 2006 Buffon was the best goalkeeper in the world marshaling one of the world’s best defences. These days he’s suffering from playing behind a weaker back fours at both club and international levels. He’s still clearly the best Italy has to offer – and arguably remains in the world’s top 5 – but he now has flaws that weren’t as evident in ’06.
Behind him Marco Amelia has improved immensely, though he is still prone to errors (see New Zealand) but Massimo De Sanctis seems likely to be usurped by Federico Marchetti or even Andrea Consigli before next June rolls around.
Buffon ’06 > ’09
Amelia ’09 > ’06
Peruzzi ’06 > De Sanctis ’09
Lippi’s biggest headache. Only three of the eight World Champion back line remain in the squad. All three are first-choice and all three are facing questions over their form. Skipper Cannavaro is no longer – and will never again be – the Berlin Wall. His two title-winning years at Real Madrid were laregly impressive, but his error-strewn final year in Spain came as a surprise to few. Fellow golden boys Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso both struggled after post-World Cup moves and have been unconvincing since their subsequent transfers to Milan and Lyon respectively.
The remaining full-back slots have been passed from Cristian Zaccardo and Massimo Oddo to Davide Santon and Andrea Dossena. Santon is already being touted as the next Beppe Bergomi whereas Doseena has looked completely out of his depth since his surprise capture by Liverpool.
Other than Cannavaro, the centre of defence has changed markedly. The supreme Nesta, surprise package Materazzi and sturdy stand-in Barzagli are fallen heroes due to a combination of injury, retirement, old age and poor form. Of their replacements only Giorgio Chiellini has the look of a true international, but even he had a rocky time in South Africa last month.
Cannavaro ’06 > ’09
Nesta ’06 > Chiellini ’09
Materazzi ’06 > Legrottaglie ’09
Barzagli ’06 > Gamberini ’09
Zambrotta ’06 > ’09
Grosso ’06 > ’09
Santon ’09 > Zaccardo ’06
Oddo ’06 > Dossena ’09
Of the 23 heroes in Germany nobody has improved more noticeably than Daniele De Rossi. Talented but tainted in 2006, the Roma midfielder is now an Azzurri skipper-in-the-making. Fellow champs Mauro Camoranesi, Reno Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo have struggled to recapture their world-conquering form. Gattuso continues to battle hard and Pirlo is looking at new ways to reform his game and thus prolong his career, but Camoranesi looks about ready for the reject bin.
Elsewhere the durable Angelo Palombo is a step up from one-season wonder Simone Barone whilst Riccardo Montolivo has started to impress in an Italy midfield still searching for someone to make the impact Simone Perrotta made at the Mondiali.
De Rossi ’09 > ’06
Gattuso ’06 > ’09
Pirlo ’06 > ’09
Camoranesi ’06 > ’09
Perrotta ’06 > Montolivo ’09
Palombo ’09 > Barone ’06
Italy’s change of formation over the last 36 months can be solely attributed to the lack of a No.10. Until Seba Giovinco turns potential into potency Lippi will be forced to look for other answers. Target men Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta remain regulars, with only Toni regressing since he reached the heady heights of a 31-goal season in Florence. But the notable names of Totti, Del Piero and Inzaghi have been replaced by Simone Pepe, Giuseppe Rossi and Fabio Quagliarella. Whilst Rossi and Quagliarella in particular have shown flashes of quality, none can claim to be adequate replacements for their predecessors just yet.
Toni ’06 > ’09
Gilardino ’09 > ’06
Iaquinta ’09 > ’06
Inzaghi ’06 > Quagliarella ’09
Totti ’06 > Pepe ’09
Del Piero ’06 > Rossi ’09
So it would appear that the Azzurri are stronger in only six of the 23 spots available. Yes, there are 38 rounds of Serie A ahead which will give players time to improve. Yes, a few of the Under-21 squad which performed well in Sweden this summer may be included. But right now the players which Lippi trusts most are largely players who have already peaked. A year of intrigue lies ahead in the battle for a spot on the plane to South Africa.