Proof you should never go back
Four years after that glorious Berlin night of summer 2006, Italy went to South Africa dreaming of a historic repeat, but were eliminated in shame last night. Bottom of Group F, without a win, devoid of ideas and lacking both the trademark defensive solidity and any cutting edge in attack, the blame and recrimination will undoubtedly last longer than the team were in Africa.
To place blame solely on one factor is simplistic, as is writing off the whole experience as a disaster. The team played poorly, woeful at times and the worst fears of Azzurri followers were realised.
Some players have emerged from the disaster with their reputations enhanced by their performances, although it is obviously a small group. Napoli pair Christian Maggio and Fabio Quagliarelli proved in less than one half game that they deserved their places in the squad. The striker was preferred to Giuseppe Rossi much to the dismay of many, but he acquitted himself well and scored a great goal. Maggio’s display at right back showed Italy already have a replacement for Zambrotta.
Riccardo Montolivo was in the team as a stand in for the injured Andrea Pirlo but finally realised the potential that Fiorentina fans have long claimed he possesses. His place in central midfield should be assured, particularly now Cesare Prandelli has taken over from Marcello Lippi.
Simone Pepe also put in a good display, providing some drive and spirit in a midfield lacking both. His final pass was not always good enough, but now he has moved to Juventus he will spend more time in the spotlight which will hopefully see him improve.
The omissions of Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli now looks even more of a mistake, and one if not both can expect to be involved under the new regime. Either one could have provided that spark of genius that can not only win a match but inspire a squad and instill the belief that a trophy could be won. Francesco Totti’s late late penalty against Australia was such a moment in 2006, a game that was slipping away won by the nerve of an inspirational player.
Wish you were here!
Perhaps even more vital, was the decision of Alessandro Nesta to not return to the National team. His cool presence alongside Chiellini would have clearly been a better fit than the much-slowed Cannavaro. The pair spent all season proving at Juventus they were a poorly matched pairing. Both are “stoppers” and both prefer to play as left-sided central defenders. A natural, skillful right-sided player like Nesta would have made a cast difference.
The injuries to Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo clearly hurt. Buffon’s presence may have provided some security to a porous back-line while the Milan midfielder is capable of unlocking the tightest defences with his superb distribution and ball retention. Claudio Marchisio and Domenico Criscito went to Africa as vibrant young players but looked overwhelmed by the occasion.
Marchisio was utilised poorly by the coach, but still offered very little when he seems the kind of player always able to give something to his team. New Juventus coach Gigi Del Neri has said the midfielder should only be used centrally, and his performances here seem to bare out that theory.
His path there is blocked by Daniele De Rossi and the two have very similar attributes meaning the younger man may have to be kept in reserve in the future rather than shoe-horning both into the team as Lippi attempted here, leaving the team unbalanced. Criscito’s own contribution can be partially explained by two factors; firstly the poor performances of Cannavaro meant no defender looked particularly solid, while the lack of a natural left sided player ahead of him offered little protection.
Alberto Gilardino is a striker who seems to sadly freeze on the biggest stages. Fearsome for Fiorentina, toothless for the Azzurri, he is almost a different player. Received little or no help from his team-mates but a striker at the peak of his career shouldn’t always need it. Antonio Di Natale suffered similarly, and Giampaolo Pazzini was invisible in the one game he did play.
Daniele De Rossi is perhaps the player who’s reputation will be most tarnished. Fabio Cannavaro was clearly worse, but his age and imminent retirement to Dubai make his performances understandable. The Roma midfielder, at 26, should have been a major contributor, yet failed miserably. Poor defending in the first game, balanced out by his equaliser, he was one player expected to step up against Slovakia, yet once again blame for the opening goal can be laid at his feet.
The future starts now
The performance of the team is in many ways the fault of the coach. Wrong players in the initial squad, omitting some who could have made a difference, playing players out of position, not knowing which formation to use all contributed to the dire displays in all three games.
Lippi attempted to shoulder all the responsibility in the post-match press conference, which will give Prandelli time to rebuild in a way that Roberto Donadoni was never afforded after replacing Lippi folllowing the victory of ’06. While the early return was disappointing and shameful in the manner Italy were eliminated, the future does look much more promising than it may first appear.