With only the play-offs remaining, most teams heading for South Africa and the World Cup have been decided. Quietly going about their business and largely overlooked when discussing favourites are the reigning champions, Italy. Adamo Digby wonders if this works in their favour and discusses whether the unlikely events of 2006 are about to be repeated.
Four years ago, Italy, coached by Marcelo Lippi, had managed to qualify for the World Cup with a game to spare for the first time since winning the tournament in 1982. Despite this, they had suffered a dire European Championships in 2004, and stuttered through qualifying. Nobody in World Football thought them serious contenders.
Now, Italy are in exactly the same situation, but the parallels don't end there. The defence and goalkeeper, seen as strong points in 2006 are again the qualities of Lippi's team.
An unproven midfield of Gattuso, Perotta, and Pirlo were expected to be too defensive and a weakness in Germany. They not only surprised people but were the platform success was built upon. Now Pirlo remains, but features alongside Marchisio and De Rossi in what is perceived to be a poor midfield.
Lippi's doubters in the World Cup season were wondering which striker would provide enough goals to win a tournament. The emphatic answer was all of them, as Totti, Del Piero, Iaquinta, Gilardino, Inzaghi, and Toni all found the net in Germany. Now football watchers see the Azzurri struggle in front of goal and hold the same doubts about Pazzini, Rossi, and Di Natale.
In late 2005, Italy squared off in a friendly against the Netherlands. A talent-laden Oranje squad welcomed Italy to Amsterdam in a friendly the Dutch were expected to win. Thanks to goals from Gilardino and Toni the Azzurri blew Holland off the pitch, before a 4-1 demolition job on Germany in Florence shortly after.
Italy's opponents for the friendly in Pescara tonight? The Netherlands.
The spirit of 2006 has been evoked by Mr Lippi once again, and if it ends 3-1 to his team, then he will find himself frantically arranging a game with the Germans, hoping for another football scandal and perhaps being the only Italian praying next summers final goes to penalties...