Ahead of his side's forthcoming 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying matches against Group 8 rivals Bulgaria and Montenegro, Italy coach Marcello Lippi has continued his overhaul of the national squad by calling up no fewer than four new faces.
Compared with the Azzurra squad that travelled to UEFA EURO 2008, the world champions have incorporated ten changes without breaking their stride. Indeed, Italy got off to a 100 per cent start to South Africa 2010 qualifying with wins over Cyprus and Georgia.
Even if a spate of injuries has undoubtedly speeded up the integration process, with defenders Marco Materazzi, Nicola Legrottaglie, Marco Cassetti, Fabio Grosso, midfielder Andrea Pirlo and forwards Vincenzo Iaquinta and Marco Borriello all unavailable, Lippi has shown a great deal of faith in a new generation of gifted Italians. So much so, in fact, that the former Juventus and Inter Milan supremo feels he can do without the services of centre-back Andrea Barzagli, attacking livewire Antonio Cassano and an in-form Alessandro Del Piero.
Lippi has claimed that "the heroes of Berlin won't receive any special treatment", but he has stuck his neck out in calling up Juve pair Gianluigi Buffon and Mauro Camoranesi - both of whom are injury doubts for the Bulgaria match.
Five expats on the list
Another curious feature of the latest Italy squad list is the number of players currently playing their club football abroad. Just a few years ago, it was rare to see current Azzurri internationals leaving Italian shores. Now the squad includes Luca Toni (Bayern Munich), Fabio Cannavaro (Real Madrid), Andrea Dossena (Liverpool), Giuseppe Rossi (Villarreal) and substitute keeper Morgan De Sanctis (Galatasaray).
The four Nazionale new boys are forwards Simone Pepe of Udinese, the aforementioned Giuseppe Rossi, Napoli's attacking midfielder Christian Maggio and club-mate and defender Fabiano Santacroce. This exciting quartet will rub shoulders with the likes of striker Alberto Gilardino (Fiorentina), defenders Daniele Bonera (AC Milan), Marco Cassetti (Rome) and Andrea Dossena (Liverpool) and midfield man Angelo Palombo (Sampdoria), all of whom were forced to watch EURO 2008 from afar.
The case of 21-year-old front-runner Rossi is particularly intriguing. Born in the United States to Italian parents, but having received his footballing education in the Parma youth system, Rossi is a lively second striker capable of tremendous bursts with the ball at his feet and the ability to unhinge defences in a flash.
The Villarreal star, who had spells in English football with Manchester United and Newcastle, is blessed with a powerful and accurate shot and has progressed through every stage of the Italian national youth set-up, scoring five goals in 16 appearances for the U-21s and three in three for the Olympic side. Since joining the so-called Yellow Submarine in June 2007, Rossi has already grabbed 13 goals in 37 matches and would appear well-placed to slot into Del Piero's favoured role behind a conventional central striker like Toni or Gilardino.
Udinese's 25-year-old front man Simone Pepe, for his part, had already worn the colours of no fewer than six clubs before finding his feet in Friuli. A tireless worker most at home on the right flank, Pepe tends to drop deep to receive the ball before launching his forward forays.
Montolivo, one for the future?
Fabiano Santacroce, 22, born in Brazil to an Italian father and Brazilian mother, is a solid defender sometimes prone to an overly physical approach - which could explain why he missed the Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 through suspension. Napoli team-mate Maggio, meanwhile, is busy establishing himself as a consistent top-flight performer after grabbing nine goals for Sampdoria last season in a wide-right role.
But perhaps the brightest hope for this new wave of young talents, along with Rossi, is Fiorentina's playmaker Riccardo Montolivo. The 23-year-old has all the right ingredients to develop into La Nazionale Azzurra's key deep-lying midfield string-puller: exceptional technique, an impressive work ethic, an eye for a defence-splitting pass and a commitment to always putting the team first. And once he has more experience under his belt, he should start taking more risks going forward and become an even more dangerous opponent.
Montolivo, originally from Milan, made his senior national-team debut in a 2-0 win against South Africa on 17 October 2007. He was also included in previous coach Roberto Donadoni's provisional squad for EURO 2008, though he eventually missed out on a place in the final 23.
Thus Italy would appear to have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal as they set off on the road to defending their world title at South Africa 2010. Coach Lippi, meanwhile, has now gone 28 matches without defeat, a run that dates back to his previous spell as Azzurri coach. Should his side avoid a reverse in their next two qualifiers, Lippi would move level with the legendary Vittorio Pozzo, whose Nazionale squad went unbeaten for 30 games (24 wins and 6 draws) between 24 November 1935 and 20 July 1939.