The conclusion of the Confederations Cup on Sunday gave a couple of Europe's superpowers something to think about as we enter the next 365 days before the next World Cup.
If there's one group of supporters who weren’t completely shocked by their team's poor showing, it's the Italians. The defending world champions were the casualties of a group stage miracle that sent the United States through to the semifinals, although Italy never looked to be in form from the start.
For months supporters and the media have hounded Italy boss Marcello Lippi to select younger players to fill his squads. Most of the Azzurri remains unchanged since their 2006 World Cup triumph. The loss of Francesco Totti and Alessandro Nesta due to retirement and the declining form of many others is leaving the Italian national side with a lot to be desired.
On the bright side, the Confederations Cup debacle should be a wakeup call to Lippi. He has stubbornly overlooked talented Italians like Antonio Cassano and his Sampdoria teammate Giampaolo Pazzini. Those two alone would help re-energize a frustratingly tired offense that only managed three goals in three games and ultimately cost Italy a spot, albeit a would-be lucky one, against Spain in the semifinals.
It was hard not to notice the subpar performances by every Italian striker with the exception of the youngest forward, Guiseppe Rossi. Rossi came off the bench and scored two goals to save Italy from a one-goal deficit in their opening match against the U.S. He then provided some necessary pace against Egypt and Brazil. Not one other striker found the back of the net in Italy's three matches.
Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino have once again proven to be unreliable. Both have had significant success domestically but it is clear that Italy will need to improve the most up front over the next year.
Tactically, the three striker system is failing the Italians too, just like it did for former coach Roberto Donadoni at Euro 2008.
Assuming Lippi isn't verbally beaten into new levels of stubbornness, he'll drop the 4-3-3 for the more traditionally Italian 4-3-1-2. This means Antonio Cassano must be selected and there are others who should get a phone call from Lippi too. The triple strike force of Sebastian Giovinco, Mario Balotelli, and Robert Aquafresca were impressive for Italy's U-21 squad at the recent U-21 European Championships. It would be a step in the right direction for at least Giovinco and Balotelli to be named to Italy's World Cup team, if not all three.
The ace up Italy's sleeve might be the inclusion of the half-Brazilian Amauri. It doesn't look like the Juventus striker will be selected for his country of birth and if the Italians can swallow some pride, he might be a useful steal.
Reports out of Italy have suggested that, along with Toni, Gattuso and Zambrotta have also seen their last game in an Azzurri uniform. Both Gattuso and Zambrotta have been staples for Italy but their age is starting to show. The former has barely appearred for AC Milan in 2008-2009 because of injury. This would mean more playing time for younger players like Riccardo Montolivo, who looked shaky in South Africa and could use as many caps as possible before next summer.
Alberto Aquilani is another young midfielder who might see more time next to Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi. But with only eleven international appearances to his name, he'll need more time on the pitch over the next year as well.
It's not often you can call on Brazil as a model of defense, but one of the most impressive elements of the Brazilian system during the Confederations Cup was the use of their wing-backs. The speed of Inter Milan's Maicon was especially dangerous during Brazil's tournament and the Selecao look like they are attacking from the back more successfully than they have in years.
Zambrotta and Grosso on the other hand weren’t dangerous at all. Both wing-backs were integral to Italy's 2006 success and Lippi will need to be creative if he wishes to breathe some life into Italy's play on the wing. The answer may be youngster Marco Motta, another U-21 stand out who should certainly feature for Italy's national squad in the next year.
It's hard to imagine Italy's issues being solved without the introduction of at least seven or eight players, especially up front. This is a disheartening truth for fans of the Azzurri, but one that is understood, it seems, by everyone except for Lippi.
Changing the squad so substantially only one year away from defending their title as world champions is dangerous. Showing up in Africa next year with the old guard would be even deadlier though. It is up to Lippi to adapt before the Azzurri are embarrassed when it really matters.