Italy
© AFP

The past
Italy has had to wait a long time for a repeat of their achievements at the 1936 Summer Games, but Casiraghi's troops will hardly be short of more recent role models when they bid to win gold in Beijing. The senior side boosted Italian confidence across the board when they came out on top at Germany 2006, and the Olympic team can also lay claim to being the most decorated in Europe at their age-group, courtesy of five continental U-21 titles (1992, 1994, 1996, 2000 and 2004).
That makes the Azzurrini one of the favourites to go all the way, even if they required a penalty shoot-out to ultimately qualify for the main event. In fact, the Italians finished just third in their 2007 UEFA European U-21 Championship pool, having lost 1-0 to Serbia, drawn with England 2-2 and beaten the Czech Republic 3-1. They then went on to beat Portugal on penalties in the play-off.

The present
A genuine waiting room for the senior line-up, the U-23 team is composed almost entirely of Serie A representatives, which unsurprisingly gives them solid experience of top-level football. The star of the side is nonetheless Giuseppe Rossi, who plies his trade in Spain with Villarreal and forms one third of Italy's formidable attacking trio alongside Sebastian Giovinco and Robert Acquafresca. Meanwhile, captain and Torino prospect Marco Motta looks to be the natural successor to a long line of talented Italian defenders.All that remains to be seen now is whether Casiraghi decides to bolster his squad with three older players, as the rules permit.

The future
Having taken over from Claudio Gentile in 2006, Casiraghi will go into the tournament with a tight-knit group of players whose collective qualities mark them out far more than their individual gifts. Building an understanding takes time, of course, and results have not always been favourable in recent years, but booking their ticket to the Olympic Games in such dramatic fashion could well prove a turning point. In addition, they clearly possess some of the senior team's mental toughness after winning their spot-kick showdown with Portugal. "Italy is going to open a school explaining how to win penalty shoot-outs," joked the President of the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI).

Facts and figures

Former stars
Franco Baresi (1984), Demetrio Albertini (1992), Andrea Pirlo (2000), Alberto Gilardino (2004)

Key players
Giuseppe Rossi (forward), Marco Motta (defence), Claudio Marchisio (midfield)

Qualifying statistics
Placed third in a strong group after one win, one draw and one defeat, Italy finally won through on penalties in a play-off contest with Portugal (0-0; 4-3 on penalties).

The numbers game
19: the number of goals scored by Alberto Gilardino, the top scorer in the history of the team, with a record three superior to that of his AC Milan colleague Andrea Pirlo, who fired 16.