The Squad: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Angelo Peruzzi (Lazio), Marco Amelia (Livorno); Gianluca Zambrotta (Juventus), Alessandro Nesta (AC Milan), Fabio Cannavaro (Juventus), Fabio Grosso (Palermo), Cristian Zaccardo (Palermo), Andrea Barzagli (Palermo), Marco Materazzi (Internazionale), Massimo Oddo (Lazio); Mauro Camoranesi (Juventus), Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Simone Perrotta (Roma), Simone Barone (Palermo); Francesco Totti (Roma), Luca Toni (Fiorentina), Alberto Gilardino, Alessandro Del Piero (Juventus), Filippo Inzaghi (Juventus), Vincenzo Iaquinta (Udinese).
How Qualified: 1st in UEFA Group 5
World Ranking: 13
Previous Appearances: (15) 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002.
Coach: Marcello Lippi (Italy)
Expected Line-up: (4-3-1-2) Buffon; Oddo, Nesta, Cannavaro, Zambrotta; Gattuso, De Rossi, Pirlo; Totti; Toni, Gilardino.
Italy are no longer the defence-oriented, catenaccio-based side of yesteryear. Italian football has evolved and developed as the Azzurri faced being left behind by the other powers in world football. Under Marcello Lippi they have re-invented themselves and will not even resemble the dreadful sides that were prematurely dumped from the 2002 World Cup and 2004 European Championships after calamitous performances. They are far better than their farcical world ranking of thirteen suggests and will as always be amongst the favourites to win the tournament. Perhaps the biggest advantage they have however is that their awful performances in the past two major tournaments see them under the lowest pressure to win in the last twenty years, which may allow them to thrive under less expectation.
At the time of writing, it is expected that Lippi will continue with the 4-3-1-2 system he used throughout qualification with Roma midfielder and perpetual hope of Italian football Francesco Totti playing in the key hole behind the strikers. This can easily be adapted however, with Totti pushed up front at the expense of one of the strikers or used out wide in a more conventional 4-4-2, or even the 4-3-3 used against Germany with Alessandro Del Piero and Mauro Camoranesi as out-and-out wingers. In reality though, with the first choice side having demonstrated such consistency in qualifying for the tournament, there are very few places in the starting eleven to be contested.
In goal, Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon is the clear first choice. Regarded by most as the best goalkeeper in the world, he is supported in the squad by the ageing Peruzzi and the unknown Amelia so Italy will be hoping that nothing untoward befalls their star ‘keeper. Perhaps Italy’s greatest strength lies in the heart of its backline, with the supremely experienced Fabio Cannavaro and the always classy Alessandro Nesta forming the world’s best central defensive pairing. Playing in their third World Cup together, these two will ensure that opposing strikers will have a torrid time getting into the game and will provide the foundation upon which entire side will rest. With only newcomer Andrea Barzagli and the temperamental and erratic Marco Materazzi for support though, it is imperative that these two stay injury-free and are at their best if the Azzurri are to have a chance in Germany. As for the rest of the backline, Lazio’s Massimo Oddo will compete with one of the three Palermo defenders included in Christian Zaccardo for the right-back berth, while Gianluca Zambrotta will be ably supported by the versatile Fabio Grosso on the left.
In midfield, expect to see Andrea Pirlo sit behind the other midfielders – generally just in front of the back four – and control the game with his neat short passing and searching long balls. Gennaro Gattuso will provide the bite in midfield, while Roma youngster Daniele De Rossi has become an important part of the team under Lippi and is one of Italy’s brightest footballing prospects. A simple and straightforward defensive midfielder, he combines aggression with class and work rate with intelligence and as such may be the midfield link missing from Italian football for years. Expect big things from this 22-year old as he appears on the world stage for the first time.
The man who will be expected to drive Italy to success will as always be Francesco Totti. The timing may be completely wrong for the AS Roma talisman however as, having only just returned from a broken leg he strained ankle ligaments in the middle of February and has only begun training again in the last few weeks. With such major questions around Totti’s form and fitness, many of Italy’s 50 million “armchair managers” are calling for Del Piero to be used as the attacking fulcrum although, at 33 years of age, the Juventus captain’s best years appear to be well and truly behind him. Whichever way Lippi decides to go however, he still has one of the strongest midfields in the world available to him.
Up front, Italy possesses several solid if unspectacular options that will depend on quality service from midfield to succeed. That said, Fiorentina’s Luca Toni has been arguably the biggest striking sensation in Europe this past twelve months, becoming the first player in 47 years to score 30 goals in a Serie A. To accomplish something that Baggio, Del Piero, Shevchenko, Batistuta and so many others have failed to do is phenomenal and, when coupled with the fact that Toni was Italy’s top scorer in qualifying, makes it clear that he will be the centrepiece of the Italian forward line. AC Milan’s first big-money Italian purchase in a long time, Alberto Gilardino, will likely be Toni’s partner up front with Filippo Inzaghi and Vincezo Iaquinta providing adequate support. Del Piero remains his own sort of player, largely ineffective when forced to play as an out-and-striker or dragged back into midfield. It will certainly be interesting to see how Lippi handles him in what will surely be his international swansong.
In all, Italy head to Germany with a very strong-looking side boasting plenty of experience at this level of football and one of the savviest and most successful managers in world football. If Lippi can get the best out of this team then they are more than equipped to go all the way and it is not a stretch to picture Fabio Cannavaro holding the trophy aloft come July 9.