Zambrotta return a sign of the times

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The sight of Gianluca Zambrotta sitting in front of the media at the first Italy press conference ahead of the upcoming Euro 2012 qualifiers against Northern Ireland and Serbia had a slightly depressing air about it.

It is not that the AC Milan full-back is not an urbane and charming interviewee, more the fact it seemed the first step backwards in what had been billed as a bright new and youthful era for the national team.

Cesare Prandelli had promised a clean slate, but Zambrotta’s return brought back memories of the words of Fabio Cannavaro prior to the World Cup, when he puffed out his chest and defiantly asked: “Where are the youngsters better than us?”

In turn, Marcello Lippi howled from the deck of the sinking ship: “I have not left any stars at home” before disappearing beneath the waves somewhere off the Cape of No Hope.

Zambrotta was part of that South African folly and at 33 should have really followed Cannavaro and Rino Gattuso into international retirement.

However, Prandelli must take any criticism now heading his way squarely on the chin, as it was he who called the player and asked him if he wanted to add to his 97 caps – and who is going to turn down such an offer?

Mattia Cassani, Domenico Criscito – a mere 23 – and Cristian Molinari, in for the injured Luca Antonelli, must feel the Italian obsession with age and the aged will never cease.

It is not as if Zambrotta is a regular at his club anymore, falling behind Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonini in the pecking order at the San Siro, which surely suggests his best years are well behind him.

Prandelli revealed he had watched another full-back, but considered him too inexperienced for what will be the intensity of Windsor Park in Belfast followed by what promises to be another tough encounter with Serbia in Genoa on Tuesday.

That player was thought to be Lorenzo De Silvestri, while there was also said to be an uncapped 28-year-old in contention - probably Cesare Bovo of Palermo - but Prandelli still opted, in these times of doubt, to fall back on one of the old guard.

There was stark warning for any young hopeful when Prandelli complained, “It’s a league rich in talent but not what I am looking for. I don’t see young players with the potential to be stars.”

The task facing the Italian federation’s technical chiefs Roberto Baggio and Arrigo Sacchi in unearthing new talent looks a long and laborious one, but we may just see results by the time Criscito is about to retire in some twenty years time.

Hence the inclusion of 30-year-old Stefano Mauri, who has captained Lazio to top of the table and is at least in a rich vein of form, although there has to be question-marks over the midfielder’s club team-mate Sergio Floccari - added to the squad in the place of the injured Alberto Gilardino.

The uncapped 28-year-old has only scored once so far this season, albeit a finely-taken close-range finish against AC Milan – no wonder Luca Toni has been trumpeting his own return to  
La Nazionale…

The first stop is Belfast and it looks as though Zambrotta will take a step closer to his century, but the Azzurri seem to be taking a step back into a previous era.

At the same time as the full international side were gathering, the nation’s 24 best under-21s were preparing for their European Championship play-off with Belarus

In Pierluigi Casiraghi’s party, only De Silvestri and Leandro Ranocchia are playing regularly enough to be seriously considered to make the step up to the next level – which again poses the question; how and why are Italian clubs failing to nurture the next generation?