Not many teams open their World Cup defence in style. Argentina were stunned by Cameroon at Italia ’90 and France suffered defeat by Senegal in '02. The glory of triumph seems a long way off and your opponents, naturally, seek to raise their game.
In that context, Italy’s opening match in South Africa was no disaster. They could easily have slipped to defeat but at least showed the guts and determination to claw back a draw and a share of the points against Paraguay. It was no classic, but the building blocks were there for an honourable display as reigning champions.
Clearly, the Azzurri did not look like World Cup-winning material on this performance. But, on the other hand, few teams have thrilled so far. The ultimate victory looks beyond this squad but if they learn a few lessons from their first match they could at least hope to make it to the quarterfinals.
The service from the flanks was atrocious for most of the first match. Time and again Simone Pepe, Mimmo Criscito, Gianluca Zambrotta, and Mauro Camoranesi got into good crossing positions only to deliver poor balls into the box. Often they failed to beat the first man, other times they floated innocuously into the goalkeeper’s arms.
The one decent cross, from a Pepe corner, ended up with Daniele De Rossi grabbing a goal.
The lack of wicked deliveries meant Alberto Gilardino had a toothless night. He is used to getting the pacy, spinning service of Juan Vargas at club level. Only with similar opportunities can he thrive for the Azzurri.
And if you replace him with Giampaolo Pazzini the same holds true. His predator instincts are assisted by the craft and guile of Antonio Cassano. Without similar provision he would surely have struggled as much as Gila.
So, Mr Lippi, get your boys to beat the last man, get to the bye-line and whip in those dipping, swerving, deceptive crosses.
It is unfair to saddle Riccardo Montolivo with the role of being a substitute for the Milan man. There is no Italian player quite like Pirlo and it is wrong to ask the Viola man to do such a job. It would be akin to asking Steven Gerrard to play like Xabi Alonso. In other words, pointless.
Monty’s greatest gifts are his galloping runs and an ability to fire in a low, skidding shot that could be lethal with the Jabulani ball. Give him free rein to express himself in that manner and he could boss the Azzurri midfield as he does with Fiorentina. There were some positive signs against Paraguay.
Once Pirlo returns, fine, revert to the style that suits him. But in the meantime, don’t weigh down the rest of the side with his legacy.
The Juve man was one of the great under-achievers of the night but he was asked to play in a role which was too much of a compromise of his qualities. Let him perform in a position where he feels more comfortable and we would see a different display.
Asking him to play the creative role between attack and midfield is like putting Parmesan cheese on your seafood spaghetti—an absolute faux pas. He is happiest in a deeper role where a lung-bursting run and cool finish can make a vital contribution.
Camoranesi made a lot more sense for the duties the young Bianconero was asked to perform against the South Americans. Either pick the "new Tardelli" in a position that suits him, or leave him kicking his heels on the bench.
After a lifetime of Gigi Buffon killing off all rivals for the No. 1 shirt it could be time for a change of guard. Not that the netminder is old, but simply that time may be catching up with him. We all know the aches and pains that can bring.
Now could be the hour to show faith in the Cagliari shotstopper and pick him ahead of Superman, even if he claims to recover. Put simply, can Italy afford to keep using up a substitution every time the legendary goalie feels something go "twang?"
Against Paraguay it hampered Lippi’s options to try to get back into the game. Against better sides, it could be disastrous. If there is any doubt, leave Gigi out. After all, the Azzurri will have to get used to it one day.
There was something to be said for the battering ram approach of Pepe and Vincenzo Iaquinta but it appeared to get more from the new Juventino than it did from the old. However, the 4-2-3-1 system seemed to play into Paraguay’s hands over time and rarely looked like unlocking their defence.
Iaquinta seemed happier playing in a more central role but was still not the power force he can be. Nonetheless, the team appeared to fare better in a 4-4-2 that allowed width and a little more penetrative prowess.
Going forward, the Azzurri will have to be adaptable but a front pairing of Pazzini and Toto Di Natale could be an interesting one. The Samp man could win a lot of knockdowns for the Udinese striker to pounce on. Pepe down one flank and Camoranesi or even Christian Maggio down the other would surely guarantee some good crosses too.
Even Montolivo and De Rossi looked happier without Marchisio sitting in front of them, effectively blocking their rampaging route to goal. Tactics need to be adaptable, of course, but this looked like the best way to go in breaking down a stubborn defence which Italy will undoubtedly see more of if they progress in the tournament at all.