Thursday March 24 2011
Slovenian slip-ups

Recent history certainly doesn't favour Italy ahead of the Slovenia qualifier on Friday, as Giancarlo Rinaldi reveals

Arrigo Sacchi and Marcello Lippi have seen plenty of silverware over the years. They have coached teams to success around the globe in glittering careers for both club and country. But Cesare Prandelli can trump them both if he achieves something neither of them could manage – an away win against Slovenia.

Back in September 1994, Italy travelled to Maribor as World Cup runners-up. Much of the team from the USA remained with Franco Baresi skippering an experienced side including fellow Milanisti Alessandro Costacurta, Roberto Donadoni and Demetrio Albertini. Gigi Casiraghi, Beppe Signori and Gianfranco Zola led an attack which was supposed to rip its lowly opponents apart. Instead, they were lucky to escape with a draw.

Within 15 minutes Italy were behind through Saso Udovic and although Costacurta quickly levelled matters, the Azzurri never looked comfortable. Indeed, they should have gone home with a defeat when a linesman failed to spot that a Slovenian shot which thumped down off the woodwork had crossed the line. It was the beginning of a slow-burning end to the Sacchi era that would fizzle out in England in 1996.

"Vice champions of no value," boomed the Corriere della Sera. "Saved by a referee who did not spot a valid goal for little Slovenia. Dino Baggio was a disaster and the Signori-Zola experiment failed."

"Srecko Katanec warned me they would give us problems," added goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca about his former Samp teammate who was part of that Slovenia side. "But none of us expected to suffer quite so much."

Ten years later, things went even worse for Lippi's team in Celje. He was just at the outset of a first spell in international management that would conclude with glory in Germany. However, the third qualification match of that campaign proved to be one to forget.

With two wins already under his belt, the Coach brought Francesco Totti back into a side which included much of his future World Cup winning line-up. Gigi Buffon sat behind a defence including Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta. Daniele De Rossi and Rino Gattuso prowled the midfield while Cagliari wide-man Mauro Esposito was supposed to provide the crosses for hitman Alberto Gilardino.

It worked up to a point as Italy dominated the play but could not convert their chances – most notably when substitute Luca Toni hit the crossbar. Instead, it was Slovenia who would take their opportunity late in the game when defender Bostjan Cesar, now of Chievo, nodded home. It allowed them to overtake the Azzurri in their qualification group.

"We are in the process of building a side," insisted Lippi afterwards. "We are trying to bring some players through and reinstate others. But what I can say is I don't remember many qualifying campaigns made up only of resounding victories and great performances. You have to take a few slaps and knocks in order to grow up. I only hope we don't take too many."

It was a lesson which that team took on board. Two survivors of that defeat, Buffon and Gilardino, will travel with the Italy deputation on this mission to Ljubljana. Hopefully they will give their colleagues a warning about the task which lies ahead. If it was a tall order for the likes of Sacchi and Lippi, then it can be no easy task for anyone to put out a side capable of victory in Slovenia.

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