Holders content to lie low
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Reigning world champions they may be, as well as the second-most successful international team ever after Brazil, with four FIFA World Cup™ victories; nevertheless, Italy’s players find themselves in the unorthodox position of approaching this year’s tournament as dark horses. This paradox is unlikely to overly concern Marcello Lippi though, for whom the mantra remains more than ever “the team above all else.”

Nine FIFA World Cup winners have retained their place in the squad: Daniele De Rossi, Alberto Gilardino, Vicenzo Iaquinta, Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, Gennaro Gattuso, Gianluca Zambrotta, Mauro Camoranesi and Fabio Cannavaro. Although just two of these players, Gilardino and De Rossi, are still in their twenties four years down the line from Germany 2006, the squad’s average age has barely jumped at all, from 28.8 to 28.9. That said, this is still the oldest pool of players to represent La Nazionale at the global showpiece, despite the absences of veterans Alessandro del Piero and Francesco Totti, both overlooked this time around.

The future is present
“Everyone has always said that I’m too loyal to the players that lifted the World Cup," said Lippi. "But if you look closely, you’ll find that I’ve changed half the squad compared to the 23 that were in Berlin in 2006. There are also lots of young players that have sufficient experience to come in and do a job. They represent the future of Italian football, but must also be its present. If I had to lead this team for an entire season, I probably would have made other choices. But for a month, it shouldn’t pose a problem. And don’t forget, there’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle.”

The performance of Gennaro Gattuso in Italy’s recent 1-1 draw with Switzerland confirms this theory. Despite having spent practically the entire season on the bench at AC Milan, ‘Ringhio’ demonstrated why his coach has such confidence in him, putting in a performance full of energy and fighting spirit.

Don’t forget, there’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle.
Marcello Lippi defends his 'oldies'

An old hand at ignoring media criticism and hype, Lippi has overseen a changing of the guard in defence, bringing in the burgeoning talents of Salvatore Bocchetti and Leonardo Bonucci, both 23 years of age. New faces can be found in midfield too, where Riccardo Montolivo, 25, and Claudio Marchisio, 24, have a good chance of featuring at some point. The Italian coach is a keen admirer of the latter, seeing in him a key player in the making: “He is adept at finding space and is always ready to take opportunities that present themselves.”

In attack, Gilardino remains an unassailable first choice, but Giampaolo Pazzini and last-gasp call-up Fabio Quagliarella both reminded Lippi of their presence during Italy’s recent warm-up matches. And it would be foolish to forget the in-form Antonio di Natale, top scorer in Serie A last season with 29 goals. This abundance of striking talent should allow the defending champions to start with three up front, supported by a more solid-looking midfield and defence.

Match point
Injuries to Camoranesi and Pirlo prevented Lippi from trying out everything he had in mind in the games against Mexico and Switzerland. This does not appear to worry the wily coach, but he is a man with a good memory. After all, Italy also failed to win one single preparatory friendly match in the run-up to the 1998, 2002, and 2006 FIFA World Cups. The country’s last victory in a warm-up dates back to 1994 versus Costa Rica.

In fact, Italian fans, among the most superstitious in the world, came close to actually welcoming the draw with the Swiss. After all, the Helvetians also served as final sparring partners for the Squadra Azzurri in 1982 and in 2006. Each time the match ended in a 1-1 draw and each time Italy went on to secure the FIFA World Cup.

Lippi’s aura of calm can also be explained by the fact that there is much less pressure on him this time, given that he already knows that, whatever happens, he will hand over the reins to his successor Cesare Prandelli at the conclusion of South Africa 2010. In the meantime, pleased with the high levels of confidence in his squad, he has simply asked that his players take inspiration from current events: “I want to have eleven Schiavones in the team every time we play,” he says, making reference to the Italian female tennis player who pulled off a surprise win at the French Open last weekend.