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Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Is the future blue for the Azzurri?

Andrew Hush

While the Confederations Cup semi-finalists prepare for their last four matches, world champions Italy have returned home with their tails between their legs. A 3-0 humbling by Brazil not only put paid to their chances of reaching this tournament's knockout stages, but also emphatically laid out the size of the task facing the Azzurri over the next twelve months, if their next visit to South Africa is to be more successful than their most recent one.

An opening game win against the USA came about thanks largely to an inspired display from substitute Giuseppe Rossi but served only to paper over cracks which were exposed in the following games against Egypt and Brazil.

The issues were evident at both ends of the field. As well as conceding four goals - two more than Italy allowed in seven games at the last World Cup - Marcello Lippi's side lost its attacking mojo, failing to score despite taking 37 shots.

In the aftermath of the Brazil game, Lippi was belligerent in his assessment of the state of his side, insisting that the players he had picked for the tournament remained the best the country had to offer even if, as he admitted, they were a "little out of form". A day later, his tone had changed, as he conceded "this is the worst period I have seen since taking charge of the team".

Concerned fans will have gleaned little hope from his words, especially his comment that "the heart and spirit is there, but something else is missing". While the position of Lippi, a World Cup-winning coach after all, is unlikely to come under threat ahead of South Africa 2010, his admitting that he is unsure how to remedy the issues that face Italy is a ringing indictment of the current state of the national team.

The reaction of the Italian media, though not hysterical, has nevertheless been forthright. "Floored" was the headline in Monday's La Gazzetta dello Sport which suggested that Lippi needs to rebuild his team into one "capable of defending the world title".

There is huge pressure on Lippi to arrest the slide and little obvious opportunity for experimentation. Italy top their World Cup qualifying group by one point from Ireland and also have a game in hand but, with trips to Georgia and Dublin either side of a home tie with Bulgaria, a spot in South Africa next year is not quite yet a foregone conclusion.

Further blurring the picture is the absence of myriad alternative options for Lippi. Speaking through an interpreter after the Brazil defeat, he responded to one question regarding new blood by saying "you speak about young players. Which young players?"

It appears the coach remains intent on getting his veterans to play better than to introduce great swathes of unproven youth to his squad. For example, Italy's Confederations Cup squad contained ten players aged 30 or over and only five under 25. At 18, Davide Santon of Inter was also included, although he saw no playing time.

It is true that there have been changes since 2006 - only 11 World Cup winners were in South Africa - but the nucleus of Italy's first XI remains the same. Six players who started the World Cup final, as well as two - Daniele de Rossi and Vicenzo Iaquinta - who appeared as subs against France, began Sunday's defeat to Brazil.

A look at Serie A's goalscoring charts from last season seems to corroborate Lippi's thoughts on the dearth of young depth, especially where strikers are concerned. Of the nine Italian players who scored at least 13 goals, five are in their thirties. Two that are not - 26-year-olds Alberto Gilardino and Fabio Quagliarella - failed to shine in South Africa.

Of those in the talent pool that could step in, there are a number who have not made the most of their obvious talent to date. For example, another 26-year-old with much to offer is Antonio Cassano. However, his chances of advancing his international career have been hindered by frequent brushes with authority, including Lippi himself, who has only ever called up the volatile striker twice during his time as Azzurri coach.

Cassano's Sampdoria teammate, Giampaolo Pazzini, was rewarded for an outstanding season with a call-up for qualifiers against Montenegro and Ireland earlier this year. However, after scoring on his debut he was then sent off three days later for elbowing John O'Shea after just two minutes. A penalty miss in a recent friendly with Northern Ireland further blotted his copybook to the extent that he was excluded from the Confederations Cup squad.

A little further down the age range, Mario Balotelli remains raw and immature. Never was this more in evidence than in last week's UEFA Under-21 Championship tie with Sweden when, 13 minutes after putting Italy ahead, he was sent off. At just 18, however, he has time on his side even if next year's World Cup comes too soon for him.

Among Balotelli's teammates in Sweden are Marco Motta, Domenico Criscito, Claudio Marchisio, Sebastian Giovinco and Robert Acquafresca, all of whom have been mooted as being worthy of being given a chance by Lippi. The question is, given the importance of Italy's upcoming games, does Lippi trust them sufficiently to give them their chance at the expense of the tried and trusted veterans?

Perhaps the key man for Lippi is a player who will not even officially be Italian for another three months. Juventus striker Amauri has lived in Italy for over a decade and expects to be confirmed as a citizen in September. Born in Sao Paulo, the 29-year-old offers a physical presence up front which should render the increasingly cumbersome Luca Toni surplus to requirements.

Whether Amauri alone can inspire a worthy World Cup defence remains to be seen and it is likely that, in addition to his introduction, more new faces are required to resurrect Italy. Overseeing the rebuilding process will be Lippi, a grizzled veteran who has built many a side in a coaching career which spans three decades.

However, for all his experience, Lippi may never have encountered a tougher task than that which he faces currently. While youth may be required on the field, on the sideline his know-how could prove invaluable.

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