After two defeats and just a single laborious victory, world champions Italy made an unexpectedly early exit from the FIFA Confederations Cup 2009. Marcello Lippi and his men are now faced with the daunting task of returning home and explaining their failure to a decidedly unimpressed Italian public.
"This is the toughest time I've had as Italy coach," said Lippi, following his side's 3-0 defeat to Brazil. "We're in the process of rebuilding the side, and that will take some time. If I hadn't left the Nazionale three years ago, things might have been different here. There are players I need in order to make sure we qualify. Then it will be time to bring in new faces."
Reading between the lines then, the Azzurri coach would appear to be less than enamoured with the way some of his more experienced players performed in South Africa.
If so, he would only be diplomatically mouthing what the Italian media have been saying in the wake of their side's elimination. "The only consolation we can take is that this will serve as a lesson for Lippi, ensuring he returns to South Africa next year with a different team," argued La Gazzetta dello Sport. The Corriere dello Sport spoke of Italy's "shame" while Stampa wrote "Forget mummies, Italy were the mouse to Brazil's cat."
A laboured 3-1 win over a USA side that was down to ten men for over an hour was followed by two defeats, 1-0 to Egypt and 3-0 to Brazil, and the overriding sensation that Italy are no longer feared by their opponents. Indeed, that was a conclusion many had already reached when Roberto Donadoni's Italian side surrendered their place at UEFA EURO 2008 so meekly.
Here in South Africa there appeared to be a lack of cohesion between 2006 FIFA World Cup™ winners such as Fabio Cannavaro (35), Luca Toni (32), Fabio Grosso (31) and Gennaro Gattuso (31) and younger players like Davide Santon (18), Giuseppe Rossi (22) and Riccardo Montolivo (24).
With some of the veterans looking very much their age, Lippi was questioned about the need for an injection of fresh blood.
"I can't just put 20 new faces into the squad," said Lippi. "I couldn't do without Gattuso, for example. Despite his injury, I needed him. And it wouldn't have been fair to go cherrypicking the U-21 squad which is coming to the end of its natural cycle at the European Championship. I think I called up the best Italian players we have right now. But you can be sure this competition has helped me sort the wheat from the chaff. I have my opinion on each player, whether he's young or old."
Be that as it may, the FIFA World Cup-winning coach knows he needs to give youth a chance at some point. Gianluigi Buffon is unassailable, but many fans would like to see Inter Milan's Santon and Roma's Marco Motta given a fair crack of the whip in defence and Udinese's Gaetano D'Agostino a chance to shine in midfield.
Up front Luca Toni, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Fabio Quagliarella will certainly be looking over their shoulder in the months to come, as tifosi favourites Giampaolo Pazzini from Sampdoria, former Cagliari and future Genoa striker Robert Acquafresca and Inter Milan's Mario Balotelli all make their case for a spot in the national side. Buffon was quick to acknowledge that Balotelli, a member of Pierluigi Casiraghi's U-21 side at the UEFA European Under-21 Championship, would have been a handy addition in South Africa. "Unfortunately, he can't be in two places at once," remarked the Juventus keeper.
Lippi has his work cut out, then, if Italy are to put up a credible defence of their title next year, and he will certainly be helped by an early qualification for next year's showcase finals.
The tactician would then have time to test a few combinations in friendlies, but automatic qualification is not yet a foregone conclusion, despite his side leading Ireland by one point with a game in hand at the top of European Zone Group 8. Wins in Georgia on 5 September and then at home to Bulgaria four days later would get them very close though and ease the pressure on Lippi as he attempts to mould his new Italy.