Since making his return as national coach Marcello Lippi has been intent on injecting new blood into the Italy side, sidelining some famous names to give youth a chance. His adventurous policy of rejuvenation will be put to the test in the next few days, with the Azzurri taking on Montenegro in Podgorica on Saturday before facing off with Republic of Ireland, their fellow joint-leaders in Group 8, in Bari next Wednesday.
Lippi's squad for these crucial back-to-back encounters contains only eight of the 23-man pool that triumphed at Germany 2006, with in-form veterans Filippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Del Piero featuring among the high-profile absentees. "I want to bring young players into the team on a gradual basis," the former Juventus coach said recently, and not for the first time, in an effort to explain his selection policy.
And while the omission of Inzaghi and Del Piero has caused some surprise, perhaps Lippi's most controversial decision was to ignore the claims of the talented yet volatile Antonio Cassano, a player he also chose to overlook in 2006. "I only speak about players in the team and I don't have to justify my decisions," he commented in response to the debate surrounding the Sampdoria livewire. "I have my opinions and I don't have to explain them to anyone. And that's not because I'm arrogant either."
The new names on the Italian roll call are Salvatore Bocchetti, Marco Motta and Giampaolo Pazzini, while Lippi also sprang a surprise by recalling Matteo Brighi and Pasquale Foggia.
Some eyebrows were raised by the inclusion of Bocchetti, a 22-year-old central defender who has made only 25 Serie A appearances in total, 23 of them this season for Genoa. Given his flawless displays since joining AS Roma on loan a few weeks ago, Motta's call-up was less unexpected, while Pazzini has scored eight goals in eight matches since joining Sampdoria in February.
I only speak about players in the team and I don't have to justify my decisions. I have my opinions and I don't have to explain them to anyone,
Brighi's appearance on Lippi's list came as something of a shock. The-28 year-old, a tireless worker in the Roma midfield, earned his only international cap to date back in 2002, when he was named Player of the Year in Serie A. Fellow returnee Foggia, who has impressed in an attacking midfield role for Lazio, will be staking a claim for a place on the right flank and is determined to add to the single cap he collected two years ago.
To an extent, Lippi's selection switches have been forced upon him, with the likes of Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino, Gennaro Gattuso, Mauro Camoranesi, Simone Perrotta, Daniele Bonera, Nicola Legrottaglie and Alberto Aquilani all absent through injury.
Denied such experienced campaigners, the former Juventus coach has had to impress the importance of international duty upon his new recruits. "The true representative of a country's football is the national team, not the clubs," he said, underlining the message at the squad's first get-together by reminding them that "the important thing is to be part of the group, not whether you're going to play or not".
Lippi's biggest problem as he prepares for the double-header is moulding a midfield line-up to replace the absent quartet of Gattuso, Perrotta, Camoranesi and Aquilani. The yellow cards hanging over Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini and Marco Amelia are another source of concern. Further cautions for any of those four in Podgorica will force them to miss the vital game with the Irish.
With the leading duo a full seven points clear of third-placed Bulgaria, next Wednesday's meeting in Bari is crucial to Italy's automatic qualification hopes. What is sure to make the occasion even more challenging for Lippi is the fact that few know the Nazionale better than Republic coach Giovanni Trapattoni, a predecessor of his in the national hotseat and a coach for whom Lippi has the utmost respect.