Wins over Georgia and Bulgaria as good as put the world champions on the plane to South Africa

Paddy Agnew in Rome
Italian football received a badly needed fillip in early September when Marcello Lippi’s World Cup winners left some unimpressive recent performances behind them with a convincing 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Bulgaria. This win meant that Italy could then travel to Dublin in October for what might otherwise have been a very difficult qualifier with the comfortable cushion of a four-point lead over Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland.

Italy can even lose in Dublin and still win the group thanks to their final game at home to Cyprus (in Parma) four days later. No one wants to say it but Italy’s qualification is as good as in the bag. More importantly, the Italians now seem sure to miss the lottery of second-place play-offs that could have seen them come head to head with awkward customers such as France, Portugal, Russia or Turkey.

Little wonder that Lippi was a satisfied man in Turin as he reflected on a game that Italy wrapped up with first half goals from Fabio Grosso (11th minute) and Vincenzo Iaquinta (40th), saying: “I’m very happy for my players. People were trying to suggest that they were no good but, in reality, this is a side that has a lot of quality, mental and physical. They scored two splendid goals in a very good first half when we might have had five and then, after that, we contained the game in the second half.

“You’ve got to remember that this is a time of year when we [Italian sides] are never at our best, the players from the other leagues start earlier than us and they are fitter than us. On top of that we made a number of changes tonight and they worked out well.”

Lippi and Italy had gone into the Bulgaria match under something of a cloud. Not only had the side been humbled during the June Confederations Cup in South Africa in which the “Azzurri” lost 1-0 to Egypt and 3-0 to Brazil but they had also been distinctly unimpressive four days earlier in a 2-0 World Cup win against Georgia in Tiblissi.

Although that result had gone Italy’s way, the reigning World Champions had looked ineffective and rarely dangerous against a young, motivated but hardly irresistible Georgia. We had to wait until the 52nd minute of the match for the first Italian shot on goal. Italy might be No.4 in the FIFA World rankings with Georgia on No.112 but for the first hour of this game, you would never have guessed.

In the end, Dame Fortune came to the rescue in the shape of the hapless Georgian captain Kakha Kaladze. The Milan defender had not played a competitive game for seven months, since losing the Milan derby last February, and his ring-rustiness was to cost Georgia dear. Seconds after Gigi Buffon had made a remarkable point blank save from Goergian striker Vladimer Dvalishvili, Sampdoria midfielder Angelo Palombo tried a speculative long range shot.

His effort appeared to be on the way out but, in a futile attempt to be ultra-safe, Kaladze in trying to head the shot away for a corner managed only to turn it into his own net. This was a goal that would have looked embarrassing in a Sunday morning kick-around, let alone in a World Cup qualifier.

Worse was to follow. Incredibly, Kaladze staged an “encore” 11 minutes later, once more completely wrong footing his goalkeeper Giorgi Lomaia when attempting to deal with a cross from Genoa left back, “Mimmo” Criscito. Italians have never been ones to go in for advanced dentistry when it comes to “gift horses” and so it was in Tiblissi with Kaladze effectively winding up the business, there and then. Trailing two goals and with their morale utterly deflated, Georgia faded from the game leaving Italy to freewheel home, even if the Italian handbrake seemed to be stuck in the “on” position.

It would be hard to over-estimate the importance of the Bulgaria result. Even if it is true that Bulgaria made it easier for Italy by adopting a much less negative approach than in their 0-0 draw in Sofia one year ago (after all, the Bulgarians realistically needed to win in order to maintain their slim chances of qualification), this was still an impressive Italian performance.

For much of the last year, Lippi has been criticised for sticking too loyally to his 2006 World Cup winners. Against Bulgaria, there were nine of them on the field. Not surprisingly, in his post-match observations Lippi suggested that we will be seeing quite a lot more of his World Cup winning squad, saying: “I will be continuing to use them, don’t worry.”

The win against Bulgaria may also have laid to rest the unending polemic about “enfant terrible” Antonio Cassano of Sampdoria. As Italy struggled and stuttered against Egypt, Brazil and Georgia, there were many asking if Lippi could really afford to ignore the gifted talents of Cassano. With the qualification (almost) in the bag, the Cassano polemic may finally fade.

In the meantime, however, there will be a lot of attention paid to another striker, Juve’s Brazilian Amauri, currently in the process of being “naturalized” Italian. Lippi has consistently said that he will consider Amauri just as soon as the Juventus striker becomes “Italian”. Many are convinced that this will happen this winter with Amauri likely to be called into the national team.

While Lippi waits (or not) for Amauri, he can take comfort from the emergence this summer and autumn of at least four “new boys” who can be expected to figure in South Africa next year – Genoa left back Mimmo Criscito, Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio, Udinese midfielder Gaetano D’Agostino and Villareal striker Giuseppe Rossi.

Even at this stage, the dye is cast with Lippi almost certain to defend his World title in South Africa next year with a side that relies heavily on the Germany 2006 squad, slightly modified by the inclusion of such as Criscito, Marchisio, Rossi et al. Based on their Confederations Cup showing, such an Italy will not be good enough. Based on their win against Bulgaria, they will again be serious tournament contenders. Which Italy will show up in South Africe? We suspect it will be the latter.