Group F: Italy

The World Champions aren't considered frontrunners this year despite the easiest of groups, explains Matthew Barker.

Italy remains very much a country for old men. Calcio’s mystifying reluctance to put any faith in players under 25 may be steadily changing at club level, but Marcello Lippi seems more excited by the prospect of coaxing Francesco Totti and Alessandro Nesta out of international retirement than giving the likes of Inter’s Mario Balotelli a run out in a pre-World Cup friendly. Stubborn old Tuscan that he is, the Azzurri coach has already seen off the very vocal pro-Antonio Cassano lobby and is now staring down the Balotelli brigade with equal steely resolve.

Instead, Lippi is determined to stick with his mid-thirtysomething veterans from four years ago, a decent chunk of whom play for a Juventus team that has at best been inconsistent this season and at worst downright woeful (and indeed their club seems pretty keen to offload them come the summer).

Italians are mostly miffed that their national side lacks any sort of playmaker, a classic fantasista who can change a game with a moment’s little flash of inspiration. It’s exactly the sort of thing that an in-form, positive-minded Cassano can get up to, of course.

But Lippi is a firm believer in the power of squad spirit; he likes things to be nice and calm and the last thing he wants is anyone coming in and causing a commotion - exactly the sort of thing an out-of-form, negative-minded Cassano can get up to, of course. “I choose players that have moral qualities as much as technical abilities,” he explains. “In a World Cup, collective strength can be more important than actual talent.”

Few commentators seriously expect the team to retain the trophy. There’s a very real danger that this underwhelming Azzurri side could go on and repeat the miserable performance of their Mexico 1986 predecessors, when Enzo Bearzot’s world champions stumbled their way through the group stage before being knocked out at the first time of asking by the French.

“I know full well that if we lose in South Africa they’ll massacre me,” admitted Lippi recently. He may be right, but if a poor showing provokes a shake-up of the game’s more conservative traits it could turn out to be one of the best things to happen to Italian football for a while.

Bags of experience, the confidence that comes from being winners and a compact, tight-knit squad. Lippi will possibly look to foster a bit of a siege mentality, especially if the Italian press start getting a few digs in early on. Previous flirtations with 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 formations have failed dismally (see the Confederations Cup), but giving Andrea Pirlo a more advanced role behind a front two in recent friendlies looked promising. He'll miss the first match through injury, though, and potentially one or two more...

With little inspirational spark in that bullish midfield and the lack of a consistent target man up front, there could be too much reliance on breaking up play and not enough on creativity (not that that’s ever been a massive problem in the past).

Interesting factThis year is the 100th anniversary of the Azzurri’s first ever game, a 6-2 win against France played at Milan’s Arena Civica. In the 700 games since then, they’ve won 378 times, drawn 185 and lost 137.

The Coach: Marcello Lippi As a World Cup winner, Lippi still enjoys plenty of goodwill and the majority of Italians are happy enough to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least until the tournament actually gets underway. However, there is a growing unease at his perceived arrogance, and his unshifting loyalty to a Juve side clearly past its best is prompting many a dark mutter over morning cappuccinos.

Key Player: Alberto GilardinoA fringe striker last time round, the Fiorentina man is very much the focal point of Italy’s attack this time around. An excellent all-rounder capable of playing for one of the top clubs if he has a good tournament.Probable Team (4-3-1-2): Buffon; Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Grosso; Camoranesi, Gattuso, De Rossi; Pirlo; Gilardino, Di Natale

World Cup Talentspotter: More details on the playersQ&A: FFT interviews a player from every nation 

FixturesParaguay, June 14, 7.30pm, Cape Town, New Zealand, June 20, 3pm, NelspruitSlovakia, June 24, 3pm, 

Qualified Top of UEFA Group Eight
Cyprus (A) 2-1
Georgia (H) 2-0
Bulgaria (A) 0-0
Montenegro (H) 2-1
Montenegro (A) 2-0
Ireland (H) 1-1
Georgia (A) 2-0
Bulgaria (H) 2-0
Ireland (A) 2-2
Cyprus (H) 3-2

World Cup record 1934 Winners

1938 Winners

1950 1st Round

1954 1st Round1962 1st Round1966 1st Round

1970 Runners Up

1974 1st Round

1978 Fourth Place

1982 Winners

1986 2nd Round

1990 Semi-Final

1994 Runners-up

1998 Quarter-Final

2002 2nd Round

2006 Winners

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