By Jay Mwamba
They could be the sleeper hit of the tournament, or they could put up another quintessential Italian performance — defensive, laborious and uninspiring, before crashing out.
Whatever, Italy’s Azzurri, under the guidance of the wily silver-haired Giovanni Trapattoni, and stacked with some of the game’s most technically sound players, shouldn’t go unnoticed in Japan/Korea ’02.
With three World Cup titles under their belt, the Italians belong to that exclusive club of past winners whose legacy alone guarantees them the status of perennial contenders.
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They have the players to fulfill the lofty expectations of Italian fans in Japan/Korea ’02, although their form both in qualifying and in the run-in to the finals has been far from convincing.
Barring injury, which has been a major problem in recent months for his top stars, Trapattoni should have a solid squad at his disposal for Italy’s 15th trip to the finals.
The pick of his world-class litter includes Alessandro del Piero, the dashing Juventus forward whose free-kick produced the 1-0 victory over Hungary that ensured Italy’s qualification for the finals. A former prodigy who was first capped in March 1995, the 25-year-old de Piero netted the last of his 16 goals from just over 40 internationals in a 1-0 win over the United States in Sicily last February.
There’s also the rugged, Australian-bred Inter Milan marksman Christian Vieri, del Piero’s likely striking partner if he can avoid the niggling injuries that have disrupted his career the last two seasons.
In 25-year-old Francesco Totti, AS Roma’s probing attacking midfielder, Trapattoni has the successor to Roberto Baggio as the Azzurri’s heart and soul.
At the back, Alessandro Nesta, regarded as the best stopper in the world, is the anchor of what is traditionally Italy’s forte: defense.
Paolo Maldini, the veteran of Italia ’90, USA ’94 and France ’98, once heralded as the world’s best left fullback, could also be in the mix if he overcomes his injury woes. Maldini, who’s 33, has made a record 117 appearances for Italy.
Trapattoni has also not ruled out the recall of the Azzurri’s one-time lucky charm, Baggio, now aged 35 and in the twilight of a glittering career.
The little Buddhist dubbed “the divine ponytail” was the near-hero of Italy’s 1994 World Cup campaign, when he single-handedly shot them into the final before ballooning his spot kick over the bar in the penalty shoot-out with Brazil for the Cup.
Baggio was having an excellent 2001-2002 season for Brescia when he tore knee ligaments last January. But he has made a remarkable recovery and recently scored twice within minutes of his return to Serie A.
Yet as immensely talented as the Italian squad is, they have managed to keep the lowest of profiles among the major contenders, despite losing just once in the two years of Trapattoni’s tenure.
This is probably as a result of the unconvincing manner of most of Italy’s victories, as evidenced against the Americans in Sicily, since the 2-1 Euro 2000 final loss to France. Argentina, who triumphed 2-1 in Rome, early last year, are the only side to have beaten the Azzurri after that.
Because of the cautious nature of their game, Italy struggle equally against both minnows and top national sides. This dilemma has its roots in the “catenaccio” (the door bolt) defensive system developed by Argentine coach Helenio Herrera for Inter Milan in the 1960s, and later embraced by Italian football.
Although no longer faithful to the original catenaccio format, which entailed the use of four man-markers and a sweeper, Italy have remained true to their defensive intent, much to the detriment of its immense attacking potential.
The result, invariably, is that the Italians are involved in many 1-0 and 2-1 games, or outcomes like the Euro final with France which they lost in OT after opting to defend a 1-0 lead.
At any rate, Italy’s defensive mind-set makes for many an uninspiring encounter, which should be the case in Group G, where they open against Ecuador in Sapporo on June 3.
On paper, Croatia, third at France ’98 on their debut, appear to be Italy’s toughest opponents when they clash in Ibaraki on June 8. But the final game against a sometimes feisty Mexican side in Oita on June 13 could also be crucial.
Should they live up to expectations and emerge from Group G, Italy could face a real test in the Round of 16 against opposition from Group D, which comprises Portugal, Poland, South Korea and the United States.
Winners in 1934, 1938 and 1982, and losing finalists in 1970 and 1994, Italy have missed only two finals (1930, 1958) in the 72-year history of the World Cup.
(Each week, Jay Mwamba previews a World Cup finalist. The teams profiled previously are Cameroon, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, Senegal, France, Paraguay, Slovenia, Spain, South Africa, Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Turkey, the United States, South Korea, Portugal, Poland, Nigeria, Sweden, Argentina, England, Croatia, Ecuador and Mexico.)