FOUR YEARS AGO, AMID THE BIGGEST INFLUENCE-PEDDLING SCANDAL IN THE HISTORY OF THE ITALIAN GAME, THE AZZURRI WENT INTO THE WORLD CUP WITH EBBING EXPECTATIONS AND dramatically won it all. That team, led by coach Marcello Lippi, channeled the pressure and skepticism, turning it into self-belief.
This time Lippi is back after a two-year hiatus, and expectations are once again dwindling. The difference is in the personnel. In Germany the Azzurri were brimming with quality; this time the squad is a lot thinner. One reason for this is managerial choice. With Francesco Totti, Ale Del Piero, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano all likely to stay home, you could argue that Italy's four most gifted attackers might be watching the World Cup on TV, which only weakens belief in the Azzurri and their embattled manager.
More than half the 2006 squad probably won't be around this time. Of those who will, many have had to cope with injuries (Gianluigi Buffon, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Gennaro Gattuso), age (Fabio Cannavaro, Luca Toni) or both (Gianluca Zambrotta, Mauro Camoranesi). Indeed, apart from midfielder Daniele De Rossi and striker Alberto Gilardino, no veteran has had anything approaching a solid season heading into the World Cup.
Lippi, however, has shown an unshakable faith in his veterans. And to be fair, Italy sailed through qualifying undefeated. Lippi may be counting on the Azzurri's record of thriving in back-to-the-wall situations (witness 2006 and 1982, when they also won the World Cup). But as your financial adviser might say, "Past performance is no guarantee of future results."
Plus, the guts-and-glory approach worked best back when Italy had a hyperorganized team that focused on defending and counterattacking. This time around Lippi has abandoned the old-school Catenaccio, and with good reason: Italy simply does not have the top-drawer defenders of yesteryear.
Gilardino has been scoring regularly since leaving AC Milan for Fiorentina, and he's the model all-round center forward: quick, good in the air and able to finish with both feet. Late-blooming Antonio Di Natale (snubbed by Italy's big clubs, he didn't win his first cap until age 25) is always a goal-scoring threat from wide areas because of his speed and dribbling ability. The third slot is up for grabs. Fabio Quagliarella scores spectacular goals (though maybe not enough of them), the brawny Iaquinta is a natural target man whom Lippi might deploy wide to cause matchup problems for opposing fullbacks, and the oft-injured Camoranesi is a creative winger who may have lost a step. Of course, all that goes out the window should Lippi decide to call up Balotelli, Cassano or Totti.
Pirlo's consistently creative passing was a key for Italy in 2006, and this time is no different. A deep-lying playmaker, he'll run the show and provide a threat on free kicks. The ferocious box-to-box De Rossi is a good complement. Rounding out the midfield trio will be a defensive specialist, possibly Gattuso (though he has had trouble cracking Milan's starting lineup this year) or the no-frills Angelo Palombo.