The Italian national team has been blessed across generations with having some of the best centre-backs to ever grace the game. The list of names stretches back through the decades but in the past twenty years the obvious leaders would have to be Milan trio Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini (started as left-back but finished his career as a central defender) and Alessandro Nesta. One other name to be added would be Fabio Cannavaro’s who captained the Azzurri to the World Cup 2006 triumph.
Those four defenders have left their mark on Italian football and the ‘school’ of defense with their assured performances, pragmatic approach, great leadership and longevity. With Baresi and Maldini already retired, the torch was passed to active duo Nesta and Cannavaro. Unfortunately time has caught up with Cannavaro who is having one of his worst seasons as a professional. He has struggled since returning to Juventus and his performances have left a lot to be desired with teammates Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini often masquerading his shortcomings.
As for Nesta, he has suffered from injuries which limited him to just 13 minutes last season but he has been one of the pleasant stories of Serie A this season with his composed displays and his flawless marshaling of the Milan defensive line. In fact, there are growing voices calling for his recall to the Azzurri and at this stage he would be a more reliable defender than the declining Cannavaro.
The only other established centre-back who could lay claim to the title of the Azzurri’s future anchorman and leader in the back-line is Giorgio Chiellini. The Juventus defender has performed admirably for his side since his switch from left-back to a central defender a few years ago. He has also been a solid performer for the Azzurri with his display against Spain in Euro 2008 a notable one. He was a consistent player throughout the tournament and to think he kept David Villa and Fernando Torres scoreless only serves as a testament to his ability.
Andrea Barzagli was at one point considered as a future star for the Azzurri but he failed to hold down a spot as a starter and performed miserably against the Netherlands in Euro 2008. He has not featured for Italy since 2008 and it is unlikely he will play again for the Azzurri.
Of the upcoming youngsters, two players tipped for success are Andrea Ranocchia and Leonardo Bonucci with both defenders wearing the Bari shirt this season but heavily linked with transfers to some of the elite clubs such as Juventus. It is too early to judge if they will be a success considering they have not played for a big club and have yet to represent the Italian national team with Ranocchia only playing for the Under-21s.
Even when the giants such as Baresi and Maldini graced Serie A, there were other capable centre-backs who probably would have been much more appreciated if they were playing in a different time. Such players include Ciro Ferrara (the Coach sacked by Juve), Giuseppe Bergomi (over 80 caps for Italy and won the World Cup in 1982), Alessandro Costacurta, and Pietro Vierchowod (also a World Cup winner in 1982). All four played for the Azzurri at least on 45 occasions and would have played much more if their time did not coincide with that of Baresi and Maldini.
In 2009, Coach Marcello Lippi relied on Cannavaro along with Chiellini to shore up the Azzurri defense while the bench often included Juve reserve Nicola Legrottaglie and Fiorentina centre-back Alessandro Gamberini as other options. One defender who can perhaps play at centre-back is Domenico Criscito yet he impressed more in the left-back position. Inter full-back Davide Santon can play either as a right-back or on the left flank but he is not a viable option as centre-back.
There are clearly options for the full-back positions yet sadly it seems the nation once renowned for producing central defenders does not have any quality centre-backs other than Chiellini who can carry on with the tradition.