2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™

2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™

9 June - 9 July

2006 FIFA World Cup™

United <i>Azzurri</i> face Hiddink threat

While Italy start their second-round contest with Australia as favourites, the Azzurri will be acutely aware of the dangers of facing any side led by Guus Hiddink. The Dutch tactician ended the Italians' FIFA World Cup™ dream four years ago as he masterminded host nation Korea Republic's charge to the semi-finals.

Despite the threat posed by Hiddink and his never-say-die band of Socceroos, confidence is high in the Italy camp in the run-up to the match in Kaiserslautern. The credit must go to coach Marcello Lippi and his assistants, whose steady-handed approach is clearly paying dividends.

Since the outset of his tenure as Italy coach, Lippi has concentrated on forging an unbreakable team spirit within the Nazionale squad, as he looks to achieve "something exceptional".

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Italy emerged relatively unscathed as Group E winners, keeping their nerve to see off the Czech Republic in their final game to seal top spot. The team are on the right track with everyone pulling in the same direction. Gigi Buffon's 100-metre dash to celebrate with Francesco Totti following Marco Materazzi's goal against the Czechs is emblematic of this new-found team spirit, and Lippi will need star players like Buffon and Totti to help fill the gap left by injured AC Milan defender Alessandro Nesta.

Materazzi has shown he is an able replacement in defence, his sheer commitment a further demonstration of the togetherness the Azzurri need of they are to emulate their illustrious predecessors at Spain 82. The Inter Milan centre-back put in a fine display against the Czech Republic, defending with a skill and determination that belied his reputation as an overly physical performer.

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The one-time Everton player also showed he has an eye for goal, powering home a decisive header only seven minutes after entering the fray. His performance earned him the prestigious Budweiser Man of the Match award. Moreover, his perfectly placed header meant that three of Italy's five goals so far have been scored by substitutes, and was the catalyst for a massive outbreak of communal revelry on the Italy bench - a further illustration of the mood in the camp.

Alessandro Del Piero also embodies the all-for-one-and-one-for-all attitude pervading the squad. He knows that Totti's inclusion means extended substitute duty for himself, but has joined his team-mates is getting behind the Roma man's bid to reach full fitness. The last two seasons at Juventus have taught Del Piero to bide his time and wait for his chance, and the situation is no different now. The statistics speak for themselves; whether starting the match or coming off the bench, Del Piero's impact is often decisive.

In the meantime the Turin-based daily La Stampa published the headline "Italy's route to success" as their team's potential route to the Final became clear. The implication that the team have an open road to the semi-finals, where they would probably face either Germany or Argentina, smacks of disrespect. Hiddink's men will be no pushovers, and neither will Switzerland or Ukraine if Italy make the quarter-finals.

If the Azzurri wish to accomplish the "exceptional" feat cited by their coach, they would do well to approach their second-round match with humility; they more than anybody should know that there are no easy games at this level.

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