Italy waiting to exhale

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Italy flew out of Milan’s Malpensa Airport under cover of darkness surrounded by the same patriotic fervour than now accompanies Republic Day. So, still no real enthusiasm for Marcello Lippi’s boys as they boarded their flight for South Africa – apart from the pre-teens who had forced their fathers to drive out to the airport to wave a flag.

And for many of the departing heroes-in-waiting it looked as if they had never been on a long-haul before, such were the worried faces and stiff postures as they climbed off the team coach.

The thought of spending 10 hours in an airtight tube was troubling a few members of the non-playing staff, who stood around furtively sucking on one last sneaky ciggie.

Old lags like Rino Gattuso, Gigi Buffon, Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Cannavaro were all businesslike but for the new boys the enormity of the task ahead was beginning to dawn on them. Either that, or they'd forgotten to pack.

It was back into the thin air after the pre-tournament training camp at Sestriere before landing in Johannesburg this morning to transfer to Irene-Centrion, which sits just 600m lower than their base camp, 2000m up.

The altitude training has been a central feature of the Azzurri build-up but now the team needs to hit the ground running, with Paraguay - to be played at sea level in Cape Town – just five days away.

Quagliarella on the coach

It's not all hot air, this altitude lark, according the Institute of Italian Medicine and Science who have been advising the Italian Football Federation on their preparation.

The boffins say anything over 500m makes stamina a problem – but then so does dropping back down to sea level, as Italy will do in their first game. The second match against New Zealand is back on the mark at 600m, while the real dividends will be felt in the final group game against Slovakia in Johannesburg.

Now free of the general pessimism back home, Lippi can get down to plotting his way through the group stage in peace. The party will be cocooned at what has been christened "Casa Azzurri" (Blue Home) and the coach will be putting on his fatherly best to gauge who is ready for the big kick-off.

The experiment of playing Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio in a more advanced role was as off-synch as his singing of the national anthem at the weekend. With Andrea Pirlo sidelined for the first two games at least and all the inexperienced players except Domenico Criscito failing to really shine, it will be back to basics for the opener and a solid 4-4-2.

Everyone has been holding their breath long enough for the competition to start and if Italy are to last the course then they will have exhale nice and slowly come next Monday.

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