This evening, Marcello Lippi will name his final 23 man squad who will go to South Africa to defend the trophy that the Azzurri won against expectations four years ago. Much has already been written about the mistakes Lippi has made in his selections, and rarely a day goes past without another article criticising him or his squad. I am amongst those who have raised their concerns about his decisions to leave players such as Cassano and Balotelli at home. But now, as the excitement grows, I wanted to write an article of a different kind; an article of support. An article of hope.
Amongst all the criticism, it is easy to forget just what Lippi has achieved as a manager. Serie A titles, a Champions League win (and several more finals) and, of course, a world cup win. In the modern era, Lippi stands side by side with Fabio Capello as the best Italian managers of their time; and by definition, that means he stands amongst the best in the world.
It is easy for fans at home to point out the mistakes he has made, but let's not forget what a top manager he is. No matter what his final squad is, we fans of the Azzurri can be assured that they will be tactically well set up, and most likely very difficult to beat. The man may be hard-headed, but he might fairly feel he has a right to be.
He is also not a sentimental idiot as some sections of the press have tried to portray him as. Yes, he has loyalty to his 2006 squad, but that loyalty didn't mean he blindly stuck by Fabio Grosso, a true world cup hero last time around. Lippi took the hard decision and dropped him, despite the difficult phone call that may have given him.
"Okay," I hear some of you say, "Lippi is a decent manager, but he's not got the players." It is hard to argue that the present squad lacks a truly world class creative forward, but the Azzurri do still boast the best goalkeeper in the world (or one of the best, at least), as well as a top defender in Giorgio Chiellini and one of the best midfielders in the world in Daniele De Rossi.
On top of that, many of the other players in the squad are still excellent players, and importantly are players who can raise their game in the most important games. Pirlo, Zambrotta, even (whisper it) Cannavaro can still all perform better for their country than they have done at club level recently. Others like Gilardino, Di Natale, Pazzini, and Marchisio are also players who will be viewed as threats by other nations. Even the much criticised Pepe (and I have been amongst his loudest critics on here!) enters the tournament on the back of a great finish to the season.
Still not convinced? Okay, let's look at the group Italy are in. Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. On paper, that is not the hardest group in the world, and whilst I don't think too much can be read into pre-tournament friendlies, none of these teams has shown anything to cause many worries to Italy. That is not to write them off (New Zealand did beat Serbia 1-0, and play the sort of physical football that Italy find hardest play against), nor to show them any sort of disrespect, but Italy should surely be able to finish in the top two.
In fact, it could even be a group that could give this team the very boost in confidence that they need. It presents a reasonable chance for the players show what they can do, and even grab a few goals which would set up them up nicely for the rest of the tournament. Of course, this being Italy, I concede that the could quite as easily make life difficult for themselves by losing to New Zealand or something, but for present purposes, let's say that shouldn't happen, no matter who the final 23 are.
Okay, so let's look a little further (always dangerous I know, but bear with me). A group win would likely set up a game against Cameroon or Denmark; again, not an impossible task, even if either team would present a difficult challenge. Win that, and things do start to look very difficult - most likely a quarter final with the much fancied Spain. But let's not forget, Spain only beat us on penalties in Euro 2008 . . .
In any event, once you get to the quarters, you are three games away from winning the world cup. We have a good enough squad and manager to mean that winning three games in a row at that stage is not impossible. Difficult, of course, but not impossible. Let's face it, if we get that far, all of us, even the most hardened cynics will feel that hope starting to grow inside them.
Anyway, there you have it. Hopefully, this article can show that there are indeed reasons to hope for more than we Azzurri fans perhaps expect this time around; certainly, it should not be read as a jingoistic, English media type article trying to say we can stroll to the final. I am not saying that, but I am saying that we have enough to hope that we can do well.
As Roma went on their amazing run in the second half of this season, their fans adopted the motto "Non succede, ma se succede . . ." ("It won't happen, but if it does happen . . .") It was a message of realism, but also of belief; of hope. And would it not be an entirely appropriate motto for Azzurri fans as we enter this World Cup?