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Italy, Lippi must reconsider aging roster

August 20, 2009
By Ravi Ubha

Other / Simon Stacpoole/US PresswireFabio Cannavaro is part of Italy's expanding (and potentially debilitating) over-30 brigade.

Gianluigi Buffon, arguably the best goalkeeper on the planet, is pretty good at producing one-liners, too. A commanding presence on and off the pitch, Buffon had this to say to reporters in the wake of Italy's shocking 1-0 loss to Egypt at June's Confederations Cup:

"We're the world champions, and we're the world champions at making lives difficult for ourselves."

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The defeat, coupled with an equally embarrassing 3-0 loss to Brazil, eliminated Italy at the group stage and swept aside much of the joy the football-mad nation experienced in unexpectedly winning the 2006 World Cup. Sure, Italy failed to back it up at the European Championships two years later, but that was under another manager and the Azzurri handed eventual champs Spain their toughest test, exiting on penalties -- a veritable lottery -- in the quarterfinals.

Players who excelled in Germany suddenly appeared their age, either slow or bereft of ideas, in South Africa, where the event was being staged as a dry run for next year's World Cup.

Six of Italy's starters against Brazil were 30 or older, while another turns 30 in November. Fabio Cannavaro, lynchpin of his club's success in 2006, celebrates his 36th birthday in September. He admirably earned his 126th cap at the Confederations Cup, tying him for the all-time record with Paolo Maldini.

If the World Cup started tomorrow, Massimo Cecchini -- a football writer with Italy's premier sports paper, Gazzetta dello Sport -- would give Italy a humble "20 percent" chance of repeating and landing a record-tying (with Brazil) fifth crown. Brazil and Spain, two serious World Cup contenders, have younger squads strategically sprinkled with experience.

Cannavaro was deemed surplus to requirements at Real Madrid and rejoined Juventus in the offseason. The move spoke volumes. Madrid, loading up on star names -- including explosive forwards Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema -- had no room for a former world player of the year.

Cannavaro soldiers on in the spirit of A.C. Milan icons Maldini, who retired at age 40 in May, and Franco Baresi, who called it quits at 37 in the 1990s. Both were -- like Cannavaro -- intelligent, inspirational defenders. Italy's Serie A suits Cannavaro now, slower in tempo than Europe's three other top divisions: England's Premier League, Spain's La Liga and Germany's Bundesliga.

GettyImages / Alex LiveseyManager Marcello Lippi has time to tinker, but is he willing to weave young talent into an old-guard lineup?

Luca Toni, leading scorer for German giants Bayern Munich last season, can't find the net for the national team. A modest two goals in six games at the World Cup was followed by no goals at the European Championships and Confederations Cup. Still, cigar-smoking manager Marcello Lippi, architect of the 2006 title, persists with the 32-year-old Toni.

There was plenty of cheer in Italy when Lippi decided to return to coaching after Euro 2008, although his critics are mounting. Claudio Gentile, a hard-nosed defender instrumental in helping Italy win the World Cup in 1982, suggested Italy's squad "needs to be renewed."

Amid the doom and gloom, former Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi offered a dose of perspective.

"It is a failure, no doubt," Sacchi told Spain's Radio Marca, referring to the Confederations Cup. "But it is also blown out of proportion. Italians play friendlies without any enthusiasm. They need motivation and concentration to do well. We must not judge them in minor tournaments."

Ah, yes, and the World Cup is 11 months away, ample time for Lippi to tinker. Loyal to his troops, Lippi initially scoffed at suggestions he'd tweak the roster. A few days later, with a bit of reflection, he changed his tune.

"I have never said this is the team that will go to the World Cup," Lippi said. "There will be adjustments."

The million-dollar question in Italy is whether one of those "adjustments" will be the inclusion of Sampdoria's oft-troubled genius, Antonio Cassano, so far snubbed by Lippi.

Cassano can do almost anything on the pitch, which isn't necessarily good. Last year the forward picked up a red card for verbally abusing the referee, making things far worse by throwing his jersey at the official as he departed. A five-game suspension ensued.

He has clashed with almost every coach he has played under, including the much respected Fabio Capello; he took part in a highly publicized spat with Roma's golden boy, Francesco Totti; and he often struggles with his weight. Cassano, 27, claimed in his autobiography that he'd had between 600 and 700 "flings," not exactly a sign of stability.

In fairness, Cassano appears to have calmed down slightly at Sampdoria -- the ban notwithstanding -- and was one of Italy's bright spots at Euro 2008.

"He's the kind of player that needs some special treatment because, obviously, he has his ups and downs," Gabriel Ferrari, a 20-year-old U.S. forward with Sampdoria on loan at Foggia, said in a phone interview. "But at Sampdoria he's a spiritual leader. One of the reasons he's done so well at Sampdoria is because he can be the man. That's huge for him. I think Cassano can be a big boost for the national team."

Other exciting attacking options include the inexperienced trio of Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli, Sebastian Giovinco (who is being eased into the lineup at Juventus) and New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi, who plies his trade at overachieving Villarreal.

One of the sport's top prospects, Balotelli has already, like Cassano, endured peaks and troughs. The 18-year-old drew the ire of Inter boss Jose Mourinho for slacking in training last season and missed a flight with the under-21 national team because he overslept. A section of Juventus fans racially abused Balotelli (who is of Ghanaian descent) in a 1-1 draw in April, chanting, "A black Italian does not exist."

Giovinco, listed at under 5-foot-5, makes up for his lack of height with dazzling playmaking ability (a la Gianfranco Zola), and Rossi comfortably outshone Toni at the Confederations Cup. They're both 22.

Lippi overlooked Cassano, Balotelli and Giovinco in the Aug. 12 friendly against Switzerland, though Rossi retained his spot. Toni didn't feature, yet word is he is simply being rested. A few new faces emerged in the 0-0 draw, Italy's third straight game without a goal. Cannavaro notched his 127th cap.

"Balotelli, to me, is the strongest [player his age] in the world," said Ferrari, who has lined up against Balotelli and Giovinco. "I put my money on it. I think Giovinco is another phenom, and Giuseppe did great when he came on at the Confederations Cup."

Italy resumes World Cup qualifying Sept. 5 in Georgia, and all eyes will be on Lippi's choices. He's no dud, so count on him to figure it all out when it really matters.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.