Reigning champions Italy have qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and will justly start the competition, the first time it is to be held in Africa, amongst the favourites. They qualified with a Group 8 match to spare following Saturday's 2-2 draw against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin and, as long as they do not lose at home to Cyprus on Wednesday, they will have gone through the group stages unbeaten.

The statistics are impressive: Italy have scored the most goals and conceded the fewest in what could have been a tricky group that included Bulgaria and the outrageous talents of Dimitar Berbatov as well as the gritty Irish, inspired by their Italian legend of a coach Giovanni Trapattoni. But at closer inspection, this was far from a comfortable cruise to the finals.

Italy began their campaign back in September last year in Cyprus and needed an Antonio Di Natale goal two minutes into injury time to snatch a win they did not deserve. That was followed four days later by a 2-0 home win over Georgia thanks to a brace from combative midfielder Daniele De Rossi including one unstoppable 30-yard rocket, but Italy had not shown the dominance they should have against such minnows.

They earned a solid point in Bulgaria before then struggling to a slightly fortuitous 2-1 home win against Montenegro in yet another unconvincing display. A more composed victory followed in Montenegro and then Italy's ten men, having had Giampaolo Pazzini sent off early on, battled to an honourable 1-1 home draw against Ireland, in one of the few performances from which they actually emerged with any credit.

But it was soon back to reality as their next result was a drab 2-0 win in Georgia, thanks to two own goals from AC Milan's Kakha Kaladze. Italy themselves did not break down the plucky Georgians and that came at a time when they had failed to find the net in their previous three games following a disastrous FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009 in which they were eliminated in the group stages after defeats to Egypt (1-0) and Brazil (3-0).

They more or less secured their qualification for South Africa in their next game, though, by beating Bulgaria 2-0 at home as their forwards finally found the target, but the visitors to Turin that day could easily have snatched a draw were it not for some terrible second-half profligacy.

But what the FIFA Confederations Cup and subsequent matches highlighted was the worry surrounding Italy's failing attack, which has been steadily building since the European Championships. Their forwards scored only six goals in nine games in qualification and Lippi has used a wide variety of combinations as he searches for one that works.

In fact, it seems as if Lippi simply does not know what his forward line should be, having called on Vincenzo Iaquinta, Alberto Gilardino, Fabio Quagliarella, Di Natale, Pazzini, Giuseppe Rossi and the now seemingly-forgotten Luca Toni during this campaign, while also switching back and forth from a two-man attack to a target man with two wide players.

The defence is aging and the midfield looks less convincing since Andrea Pirlo's form has started to dip over the last couple of years and it has become over-reliant on the grit and determination of De Rossi. Probably the only positive point from the Italy team's point of view is the continued brilliance of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, still one of the best in the world.

But the flip side to these difficulties is this: Italy, as captain Fabio Cannavaro recently said, have never played well, but Italy are not about playing well, they are about winning when it matters, as their 2006 victory in Germany so aptly demonstrates.

And that is what makes Italy look ominous. It is just this kind of Italy - aging, struggling, unconvincing - that is most dangerous when it comes to the big competitions. They may not win in a pretty fashion, but no-one should be surprised if Italy nevertheless do win in South Africa.