Since returning to coach the current world champions after their disappointing showing at UEFA EURO 2008, Marcello Lippi has kneaded together a revamped squad in preparation for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
Relying on a blend of enthusiastic young players gradually proving themselves in Serie A and the experience of veterans like captain Fabio Cannavaro, Lippi now has six months to fine-tune just the right ingredients for success.
The only country besides Brazil to have won successive editions of the competition, in 1934 and 1938, Italy are aiming for a repeat performance come South Africa 2010. "To achieve this impossible dream, we need to appreciate our strengths and have more confidence in ourselves. Since 2006, we’ve essentially been trying to build a new team,” said Lippi, who has tried out over 40 different players in the last 18 months and admits to already knowing the identities of 16-17 of his 23-man-squad.
"Everything should be done and dusted by March. I can’t really see anyone forcing their way into the squad after our final friendly match [on 3 March 2010]. But you just never know,” added the Italian coach, a past master at producing aces from his sleeve at the very last moment.
Though they led their qualifying pool from start to finish, picking up seven wins and three draws in the process, the Azzurri failed to really catch fire, prioritising results over performances. During their recent 1-0 friendly defeat to Sweden, Lippi even fielded a team that did not contain one single player from his first-choice Germany 2006 starting line-up.
Nevertheless, ten of those legends are still set to be part of the squad in South Africa. At the back, Gianluigi Buffon, Gianluca Zambrotta, Fabio Cannavaro and Fabio Grosso are almost certain to make the cut. The same goes for Mauro Camoranesi, Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Gennaro Gattuso in midfield. Up front, meanwhile, Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta are the only forwards practically assured of travelling to Africa.
Going through the team position by position, there does not appear to be much discussion about the three goalkeepers. Federico Marchetti (26 years old, Cagliari) is odds on to be chosen as understudy to Buffon, with Morgan de Sanctis (32, Napoli) the recognised third-choice.
At the back, six of the eight places in Lippi’s squad seem sealed already. In central defence, Giorgio Chiellini (25, Juventus), the perfect partner for Cannavaro, is beginning to look like a future captain. Another Juventus player, Nicola Legrottaglie (33) will provide back-up, while Salvatore Bocchetti (23, Genoa) appears to have nudged ahead of Alessandro Gamberini (28, Fiorentina) in the race for the remaining centre-back slot.
The situation is similar for the full-backs, with Domenico Criscito (22, Genoa) pushing strongly to cover for Grosso on the left, though Davide Santon (18) is also in with a shout should he manage to acquire a little more playing time at Inter Milan. On the right, selecting Zambrotta’s stand-in could well come down to a straight choice between Palermo’s Mattia Cassani (26) and Napoli’s Christian Maggio (27).
In the middle of the park, Pirlo, De Rossi, Gattuso, Camoranesi and Claudio Marchisio (23, Juventus) can probably start packing their bags. Antonio Candreva (22, Udinese), the revelation of the season in Serie A, could well prove to be a surprise selection. As for the final two midfield places, there are numerous options available, with Angelo Palombo, Riccardo Montolivo, Marco Marchionni, Davide Biondini, Gaetano d'Agostino and Alberto Aquilani all in the running, depending on which players are eventually chosen in attack.
Apart from Gilardino and Iaquinta, Giampaolo Pazzini (25, Sampdoria), Giuseppe Rossi (22, Villarreal), Fabio Quagliarella (26, Napoli), Raffaele Palladino (25, Genoa) and Simone Pepe (26, Udinese) are all potential candidates for the remaining attacking places in the squad.
Lippi will also have to make a decision about Amauri, the Brazilian-born Juventus forward who recently applied for Italian citizenship. In addition, he will be keeping a careful eye on Luca Toni, actively searching for a club in Italy with which to relaunch his career.
And in what will no doubt be taken as a discreet nod in the direction of Alessandro Del Piero, Lippi said: "I need to be careful not to hastily discount incredible players who may well be a little older, but who still offer a great array of skills and an invaluable football brain.” Antonio Cassano, on the other hand, does not appear to have made enough of a case for inclusion, despite public clamour to the contrary.
Six months before the official announcement of his 23-man group, and just a few days from the tournament's Final Draw, Lippi has therefore made considerable progress in terms of selecting his squad. Quick to point out the importance of “making choices that are right for the job”, will his picks help the champions stay on their throne?