Rough ride in store for defending champions

Azzurri struggle to find form ahead of big bash

Rough ride in store for defending champions

 Italy, champions in 2006, will have to strain every sinew if they are to repeat that  triumphant run. AFPThe Brazilians were the second country to repeat their world title in 1958 and 1962 after Italy had accomplished the feat in the second and third World Cups in 1934 and 1938.
Italy are also trying to match Brazil as the only other five-time world champions, going along with their other 1982 crown.

The task, however, will not be easy for Italy’s 2010 boss Marcelo Lippi, who became a national hero for guiding the Azzurri to glory at the 2006 World Cup.  Lippi left the team after the Germany spectacle but replaced successor Roberto Donadoni, who could only lead Italy to the Euro 2008 quarterfinals.

Lippi has much of the same group of players, with goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, captain Fabio Cannavaro, Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta now four years older as they man the defence -- their ages ranging from 32 to 36.

Midfielders Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo also hope that their experience has increased with age as Lippi has found no rising star among the several newcomers he tested.

Up front, there remain questions about top-notch quality without a real clinical striker to rely on, unless one among Vincenzo Iaquinta, Alberto Gilardino, Riccardo Pazzini or Antonio Di Natale step up their game, especially since Sampdoria’s Antonio Cassano, possibly the best supporting striker in the Serie A, never met the favour of Lippi.
The Italians had a solid qualifying campaign, finishing atop Group 8 ahead of Ireland and Bulgaria. Lippi’s men did not lose a match and only conceded seven goals in their 10 matches.

In South Africa, the Azzurri will face off against Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia in Group F. Lippi remains faithful to his trusted veteran guard. “You don’t judge a player’s quality on age or technical ability alone. Enthusiasm, experience, charisma, wisdom, international experience: they’re all part of the equation,” Lippi told the FIFA website recently.

“The World Cup is about seven games over a month. We don’t necessarily need all the players to be 24 years old. If I had to use this team over an entire league season, I’d probably make some different selections. But for a month, it’s not a problem.”

Also not a problem this time for Lippi and his players is the  corruption scandal which hung over the team four years back as Italian football was rocked by the scandal in the build-up to Germany 2006. Now, Lippi and the team can concentrate on a historic repeat. Before lifting Italy’s fourth World Cup in 2006, the 61-year-old Marcello Lippi built his reputation as coach at Juventus. In two stints with the Turin side, he won five Serie A titles between 1994 and 2003. In 1996, he won the Intercontinental Cup with Juve, which makes him the only trainer to have won world titles with a club and a national team.

With the 2006 world title, Buffon, 31, topped a career that he spent for the most part at Juventus, where he won two Serie A titles, after an early stint at Parma.

Equally effective between the posts and in tackling onrushing strikers, Buffon is the most nominated as best custodian by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, whose award he received four times. He closed the 2006 World Cup beaten only by an own goal and a free-kick, and came in second behind Ballon d’Or winner Cannavaro.

Italy facts

* Colours: Blue shirts, blue shorts and socks
* Nicknames: Azzurri (the Blues)
* Previous World Cup appearances: 16: 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006.
* Best World Cup performance: Winners, 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006.
* Coach: Marcello Lippi.
* Most capped player: Fabio Cannavaro (132)
* Top scorer: Luigi Riva (35)

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