2010 World Cup: Italians may not have youth on their side but group draw proves good fortune abides
FOLLOWING a final in Germany four years ago which they won on penalties, Italy's luck held as long as the draw which saw them handed possibly the most straightforward of all eight groups.
Marcello Lippi's side has not changed extensively since 2006, when they triumphed in a final that is more memorable for Zinedine Zidane's red card than for the ultimate victors. Major players such as Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso and Gianluca Zambrotta are back again, though are clearly four years older. Lippi, who left after the last World Cup but returned to replace Roberto Donadoni, is trying to emulate Vittorio Pozzo, who coached Italy to back-to-back World Cup titles in 1934 and 1938.
Italy are also striving to become the first team since Brazil in 1958-62 to win back-to-back World Cups, but are hampered by an injury concern over play-maker Pirlo. The 31-year-old has been described as "irreplaceable" by his manager, but is set to miss at least the opening two group games after suffering a calf injury in last Thursday's friendly with Mexico. It has been a set-back for Italy, although the return of Lippi suggests the Italians again mean business. Few can bet against a team with such a robust defence. "We can see that Lippi believes in it very strongly," said veteran goalkeeper Buffon, who is set to appear in his fourth World Cup. "And we want to give him another epic month, we are sure of this."
There is a strong – some say too strong – Juventus flavour to Lippi's selection, whose last posting was at the Turin club.
They finished in an undistinguished seventh place in Serie A last season but six of their players have been recruited by Lippi. Some have voiced concern about such under-achievement spreading into the international ranks. Indeed, Vincenzo Iaquinta, one of the six called up, acknowledged the need to alter their mindset after such a disappointing season.
"We've got to change our attitude because the approach we've had this year has definitely been wrong," he said this week. "We've got to take responsibility."
Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro – who has since signed for Dubai club Al Ahli – Giorgio Chiellini, Mauro Camoranesi and Claudio Marchisio are the other Juventus players in the squad and all could start when Italy kick off their defence, against Paraguay in Cape Town. Then come further clashes with New Zealand and finally Slovakia, who are playing in their first World Cup since the splitting up of Czechoslovakia.
Lippi could not have asked for a better selection of opponents, and Paraguay have been further weakened in alarming fashion. Having finished third in their South American qualifying group, clinching their place in South Africa with two games to go, Gerardo Martino's side could form the biggest threat to Italy's aim to win the group.
But they were dealt a savage blow in January when top scorer Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head a bar in Mexico City. Although his recovery has been remarkable , there is no prospect of him playing football any time soon.
But Paraguay can still call upon Manchester City's Roque Santa Cruz. He started just a single club game last season due to injury and the form of others, but he is Paraguay's one recognisable world-class performer. The South Americans were knocked out in the group stage four years ago in Germany but should be strong enough to make it to the second round this time, along with Italy.
Slovakia finished well above neighbours Czech Republic in their European qualifying group and cannot be discounted, particularly now Martin Skrtel is expected to be fit for Slovakia's opening World Cup match against New Zealand. Skrtel was substituted during the 3-0 friendly win over Costa Rica on Saturday, prompting fears he would miss the tournament with an ankle problem. However, scans showed the injury was not as serious as first thought, and the Liverpool defender has responded well to treatment.
For New Zealand, captain and central defender Ryan Nelsen plays regularly for Blackburn in the Premier League, while striker Shane Smeltz was the top scorer in the Australian league. But their first visit to a World Cup since appearing in Scotland's group in 1982 looks set to be a brief affair.
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