A nation of advisers is on hand to dispense advice to Italy coach Marcello Lippi
At the start of the season, looking forward to the World Cup finals in June, Italy coach Marcello Lippi said he was ready for any number of tormentoni (literally, pest or nuisance) on the run-in to South Africa.
The tormentoni in question, let’s be clear, do not concern player injuries, match schedules or training facilities. No, these torments are media and fan inspired and take the form of pretty forthright “advice” as to who he should take to the finals this summer. In particular, Lippi was bombarded with suggestions for his attack.
It all started with Sampdoria’s Antonio Cassano, who is not only an immensely talented player but one who was in excellent form last autumn. However, Cassano recently disappeared from the public eye because of injury and being dropped by his club, and as he faded from view so the clamour for his recall to the national team largely disappeared.
At the beginning of the season there was also much speculation about a call-up for Juventus’ Brazil-born forward Amauri, who was due to become a naturalised Italian. But, like others at Juve, has suffered from the team’s mid-season crisis and the subsequent sacking of coach Ciro Ferrara, and so indifferent has been his form of late that, if and when his Italian citizenship comes through, Lippi may well ignore him.
Then there is the old warhorse Luca Toni, who left Bayern Munich for Roma in January so he might play his way back into the World Cup squad. After a promising start back in Serie A, Toni looked to be doing just that until an injury struck him down.
Nor can Lippi be too confident about another of his trusted front men, Vincenzo Iaquinta. He has not played since Juve’s 1-1 draw with Fiorentina in October and, though he is set to return soon, for the time being a large question mark has to hang over Iaquinta’s eventual inclusion in the squad for South Africa.
And then there is the question of Internazionale’s Mario Balotelli. Big, strong and fast, the 19-year-old can play up front as a central target figure or on either of the flanks. His recent form for an Inter side in which he is used sparingly and wisely by Jose Mourinho has been outstanding, with his splendid goal in Inter’s 3-2 away win over Udinese not going unnoticed.
Speaking at Coverciano, however, Lippi appeared to exclude a call-up for the teenager, arguing that he must first complete “the journey of maturation” that Inter and Mourinho have planned for him. Then and only then, will he be ready for the national team, added Lippi, implying that this will come sometime after South Africa.
Last seen for Italy in a 3-1 friendly win against Belgium just prior to Euro 2008, Milan striker Marco Borriello was recalled for the 0-0 draw with Cameroon in March. Although he had a quiet game and received little in the way of decent service, his return to the side looks highly significant and he could well be the main man up front in South Africa.
More than satisfied
Lippi pronounced himself more than satisfied with the Cameroon game, saying he had learned a lot from a largely improvised Italy team labour hard against Paul Le Guen’s team.
Forced by injuries to experiment, Lippi introduced two newcomers in the shape of Bari’s 22-year-old central defender Leonardo Bonucci and Cagliari’s 29-year-old schemer Andrea Cossu.
In the circumstances, against robust opposition who were more concerned with shutting down the Italians than attacking themselves, both newcomers did well. Lippi commented afterwards: “Both made a good impression. They showed quality and personality, and are definitely in with a chance of making it to South Africa. I mean, I didn’t bring them here just as a little present…”
Bonucci, in particular, looks like an interesting find. Part of a Bari side that has played some of the best football seen in Serie A this season, he may step into a position that had probably been left vacant for Alessandro Nesta.
Speaking two days before the Cameroon game, Lippi seemed to confirm that, despite overtures and entreaties from both the coach himself and from Italy team-mates, Nesta had declined the invitation to return to play for Italy in South Africa.
The distinct impression remains, however, that, were Nesta to have a late change of mind, he would still be more than welcome in the squad.
When the going got tough during the qualifying campaign, Lippi made no apologies about relying heavily on many of the players with whom he had won the World Cup in Germany. Against Cameroon, he fielded only four of the players who featured in the Berlin Final – Fabio Cannavaro, Daniele De Rossi, Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo.
Of course, this was because Gigi Buffon, Gianluca Zambrotta, Fabio Grosso, Mauro Camoranesi and Luca Toni were all injured, while two other Berlin heroes, Marco Materazzi and Simone Perrotta, have since been dropped from the World Cup squad.
On top of that, Francesco Totti has not yet decided whether or not he will accept a recall to a team for which he last played in that Final.
So, just how many of the above will be fit and ready in June? And if they are all there, how smart an idea is it to rely on a team chassis that, frankly, has an awful lot of miles up on the clock?
Judged on present form, you could argue that only De Rossi, Pirlo and Buffon from the 2006 side are certainties for South Africa.
Despite all that, there is little doubt that many of the Berlin heroes will feature again this summer. The impression gleaned from the Cameroon match, however, is that there will also be space for new recruits such as defenders Bonucci and Domenico Criscito, midfielder Claudio Marchisio and striker Giuseppe Rossi.
Given recent performances, they will all be more than welcome.