Let there be no doubt: expectations are high as Italy sets out for its third World Cup as reigning champions. Fans expect the Squadra Azzurra to go all the way—anything less than the country’s fifth World Cup title would be a disappointment.
And yet there might be reason for Italian angst. Following poor performances at the Euro 2008 and the Confederations Cup 2009—and mediocre play against Ireland, Bulgaria and soccer lightweights Cyprus, Montenegro and Georgia in qualifying for South Africa—few experts actually see Italy as serious contenders for the trophy.
Paraguay: June 14
New Zealand: June 20
Slovakia: June 24
Group F has one clear favorite: Italy. The most manageable group in the tournament, the Gli Azzurri face off against Paraguay (8th World Cup appearance), New Zealand (2nd appearance) and newcomer Slovakia (1st appearance).
As the clear favorite in the group, expect most teams to adopt a defensive playing style against Italy. Whereas Paraguay might have chances at upsetting Italy in the group’s first fixture in Cape Town, both New Zealand and Slovakia will hope for a tie and hedge their bets on winning against other opponents.
This could result in some low-scoring matches in the group, as Italy itself is well-known for its stalwart defense, frequently following the strategy of scoring a goal and then setting up a barricade and defending around its own box.
Italy won the World Cup in 2006 in large part due to its players’ experience on the pitch. Now, four years later, leading veterans that carried the team to victory in Germany have either retired or currently find themselves in the late autumn of their careers.
On defense, Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta remain on the team and will be important contributors. But there is still no replacement following the retirement of Alessandro Nesta from the national squad. Neither Giorgio Chiellini nor Andrea Barzagli can compensate the loss of the AC Milan star. The 36-year old Fabio Cannavaro, elected FIFA Player of the Year in 2006, has lost much of his speed and, with that, much of his effectiveness on the pitch.
But problems on defense don’t end there. Gianluigi Buffon, goalkeeper of the tournament during the last World Cup, has had an injury-plagued season with Juventus, missing much of the domestic campaign this year. It is unclear how much this will affect him in South Africa.
Offensively, there is greater hope. Francesco Totti has reconsidered a return to the national team after declaring his retirement following the team’s success in 2006. Alongside Luca Toni, who has regained his form at Roma this year, and Antonio di Natale, who leads the Serie A with 26 goals for Udinese, Alberto Gilardino, Giuseppe Rossi and newcomer Giampaolo Pazzini round out a formidable attack.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Traditionally, Italy’s strength lies in its defending. Despite its current problems, disciplined, cohesive team efforts have shut down many world-class teams. It should not go without noticing that, during the Euro 2008, Italy was the team that best contained eventual winners Spain.
As in the past, once Italy takes the lead there is little hope for a comeback. Nevertheless, Italy has demonstrated its difficulty in managing teams committed to dynamic play. The losses to Brazil last year, especially the 3-0 blowout at the Confederations Cup, demonstrate that it is possible to overpower Marcelo Lippi’s squad.
How Italy will fare at the World Cup will significantly depend on whether its players are able to improve their form. The only Italian club team to do well in Europe this year—Inter Milan— has but one Azzurri player on its squad. The poor performances of Juventus and AC Milan this season speak volumes about bad form.
In order to succeed, players like Andrea Pirlo or Fabio Cannavaro will have to shake off the past season and lead the team like they did in 2006.
IT WOULD BE A GREAT WORLD CUP IF...
…Italy won! While Italy does not belong to the first tier of favorites, they definitely belong to the second. Facing the easiest opponents in the group stage of any favored team, Italy’s tournament will really begin with the round of 16. From there on out, Italy can beat any team. And if it requires overtime and a shootout, so be it. After all, that’s the path that led to success four years ago.
IT WOULD BE A DISASTER IF…
…the unimaginable happened and Italy was eliminated in the group stage. Considering its poor performances in the qualifying and last year’s Confederations Cup—a loss to Egypt, a tie to Bulgaria and squeaking to victory over Cyprus and Montenegro—this is not impossible. Nevertheless, it is still unlikely. At a minimum, the country expects the reaching of the quarterfinals, and preferably much more.
Statistics speak against Italy. Not once has a European team won the trophy on a foreign continent, and World Cup winners always face a difficult next tournament. Only twice since the restructuring of the tournament in 1986 have World Cup champions advanced beyond the quarterfinals in the ensuing tournament.
Expect Italy to be eliminated in the quarterfinals. Because of their easy group and a manageable opponent in the Round of 16 (likely Cameroon or Denmark), they will not face off against soccer’s best until late in the tournament.
But poor form, an aging squad, and pressure as reigning champions will eventually bring Italy’s dream of a fifth title to a premature end.
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