The Azzurri will be in Group C along with Serbia, Slovenia, Northern Ireland, Estonia and Faroe Islands. While the last three teams should not pose a threat to the Italians, the main threat will be coming from both Serbia and Slovenia.
Italy tends to struggle against weaker opposition so it would be wrong to dismiss the lower ranked countries or the difficulty they will pose to the Azzurri, but as current Coach Marcello Lippi pointed out the Serbians qualified to the World Cup 2010 and so did Slovenia. The Slovenians defeated Russia in the play-offs to qualify to South Africa 2010 and should not be overlooked.
Group C is the only one containing three teams which qualified to the upcoming World Cup which is a testimony to its strength and depth. The Serbian national team has a solid and experienced defensive line which conceded only eight times in 10 qualifiers. The four players making up Serbia’s defense are divided between the Premiership and Serie A with Nemanja Vidic and Branislav Ivanovic playing for Manchester United and Chelsea respectively. Aleksandar Kolarov and Aleksandar Lukvoic represent Italian clubs Lazio and Udinese. Kolarov has had a decent campaign in Rome despite the struggles of Lazio and he has been linked with elite clubs such as Inter during the course of the season. Vidic is obviously considered one of the best centre-backs across Europe and he has been a great soldier for the Red Devils.
In midfield, the Serbs can rely on the experienced Dejan Stankovic who has won the Serie A title on more than one occasion with Inter. Serbia is a strong team both physically and from a tactical standpoint so they are likely to disturb the Italians the most. The Italians have struggled against both Serbia and Slovenia in recent years which perhaps explains Lippi’s cautious view of the group. The former Juventus Coach might not guide Italy following South Africa 2010 and his absence will be felt despite the criticism he has received since starting his second spell in charge of la Nazionale.
The Italians need to blend in some new faces and fresh legs to replace the veterans such as Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso in defense. With emerging players such as Davide Santon and Domenico Criscito knocking on the Azzurri’s door, the back-line should be gradually rejuvenated. Both players have received call-ups under Lippi and have not disappointed. Italy will be relying heavily in the years to come on the iconic Gianluigi Buffon in goal as well as his Juventus teammate Giorgio Chiellini who is a rock at the back when performing at his best.
In midfield, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Mauro Camoranesi are nearing the twilight of their international career with the World Cup perhaps being their last major tournament with Italy. The replacements appear to be ready with the experienced Daniele De Rossi still only 26-years-old and on course to be the future Azzurri captain while emerging Juventus player Claudio Marchisio has impressed in his appearances on the international stage. Milan’s Pirlo will perhaps be the hardest to replace given his role as a deep-lying playmaker.
The attack has visibly struggled in 2009 but there are plenty of upcoming strikers such as Giuseppe Rossi and Giampaolo Pazzini while Alberto Gilardino is still 27-years-old. Fiorentina’s Gilardino saved the Italians against the Republic of Ireland before sparing Lippi’s blushes with a late hat-trick to win the match against Cyprus 3-2 in the World Cup qualifiers.
The Italians tend to underachieve against weaker opposition while they are also outrageously famous for their slow starts to official tournaments and qualifying campaigns. The tifosi will be hoping Italy can start impressively to avoid any surprises in a relatively solid group featuring the likes of Serbia and Slovenia.
The main questions are pertaining to whether Lippi remains at the helm and if the players who step in to replace the likes of Cannavaro, Zambrotta and Gattuso are of similar quality or perhaps close enough. Following South Africa, the Italian national team will be undergoing some enforced changes due to the age factor and it will be interesting to see how the Azzurri navigate such a tricky group in order to qualify to Euro 2012.
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