Marcello Lippi’s Italy went to South Africa as defending champions, write Mark Siglioccolo and Aman Sehdev, but endured a miserable and brief campaign.
The reigning World Champions came into the first World Cup ever to be staged on African soil in a state of disarray. The period after Marcello Lippi guided the Azzurri to a fourth World Cup triumph in 2006 had been followed by mediocre results under Roberto Donadoni, who oversaw a disappointing Euro 2008 campaign where Italy very nearly missed out on passage through the group phase. A quarter-final defeat to eventual winners Spain saw the Italian Football Federation turn back to Lippi in the hopes he could rediscover the magic of 2006 and lift a squad devoid of real match winners.
Lippi stuck vehemently to his core of 2006 heroes, a veteran group that were beginning to decline, with results that followed seeming to lay credence to this fact. Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Gennaro Gattuso and Mauro Camoranesi in particular, remnants from 2006, were past their primes at this point in their careers. Indeed at 36, Cannavaro, the captain, was expected to marshal the backline, despite his declining pace and years.
The game had moved on from 2006 and Italy hadn’t moved along with it. The Confederations Cup in South Africa in 2009 should have signalled severe warning signs that the current crop of Italians lacked a cutting edge.
A disastrous tournament was compounded with a group stage exit, culminating in a one sided defeat to Brazil and a humiliating loss to Egypt. The one man that showed flashes of brilliance, Giuseppe Rossi wasn't even included in Lippi's final 23-man World Cup squad 12 months later.
Indeed the Italian public and media saw the deficiencies in La Nazionale's squad. In order to defend their crown, they had to usher in the new generation of Italian players, to add energy and impetus to the team. There was an overwhelming desire for the CT to call up young guns Mario Balotelli and Rossi, as well as mercurial talents in their prime, Fabrizio Miccoli and Antonio Cassano, who had been overlooked under Lippi's second tenure.
Lippi, on paper, picked the strikers in the talent pool that had enjoyed successful goal scoring seasons for their clubs. Antonio Di Natale was the Capocannoniere winner with a marvellous 29 goals for Udinese. Giampaolo Pazzini and Alberto Gilardino had strong seasons as well, but only Gilardino had hit double figures in goals in his international career.
One major issue around the Azzurri was the fitness of creative fulcrum Andrea Pirlo. The Milan trequartista would be reduced to a 30 minute cameo in the final group game against Slovakia and Lippi had the arduous task of finding a midfield replacement capable of filling Pirlo's shoes and providing the creativity needed.
Claudio Marchisio was thrust into that role, but Lippi's constant tinkering with formations rendered the Juventus youngster ineffective as he began the tournament in the centre of a three-man midfield, then moved into the hole before finally ending the tournament shunted out wide.
In perhaps a precursor of what was to befall the Azzurri, Marcello Lippi was cautious about being drawn in a group most believed they would breeze through. Group F with Paraguay, then ranked 30th in the world, Slovakia, ranked 38th, and New Zealand, down in 78th, looked on paper to be a mismatch. “The more you think a group will be easy the more difficult it becomes,” the Azzurri CT mused after the draw was made. “Paraguay were top of the South American qualifying group for a long time before being overtaken by Brazil at the end. Slovakia are improving, they beat some good teams to get here”.
Italy’s preparations for the opener against Paraguay suffered a major set back when it was announced Pirlo had suffered an injury that would rule him out of the first two games. Marchisio replaced the Milan man in the middle, with the Azzurri lining up with a attacking trident of Simone Pepe, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Alberto Gilardino, which morphed into a 4-4-2 diamond-like formation during the game. Five members of the 2006 triumph started the game.
The heavy downpour of rain made it hard for the players to stay mobile, but the Azzurri were having the better of possession without really threatening. Paraguay were content to defend and surprisingly broke the deadlock minutes before half-time. Antolin Alcaraz rose above Fabio Cannavaro and Daniele De Rossi from a free-kick to thump in a header.
Gianluigi Buffon then had to be replaced by Cagliari’s Federico Marchetti due to a muscle problem, which would sadly rule him out for the rest of the group matches. The Azzurri were being restricted to shots from distance but finally found the equaliser they so desperately needed with 30 minutes left. Justo Villar in goal for Paraguay made a hash out of a Simone Pepe corner and De Rossi was on hand to poke in the leveller.
Pepe looked lively and Italy pushed forward in search of a winner but couldn't come up with anything. In a theme that was to define Italy's 2010 South African adventure they started ramping up the pressure in the closing stages of the game, too late to make an impact.
Marchisio, with the expectation of filling in for Pirlo, didn't make much of an impact and was substituted midway through the second half. Creativity was severely lacking in the game and one wondered where it would come from. Marchisio and Riccardo Montolivo were the only viable options for Lippi.
La Gazzetta mused that: “Marchisio playing behind the front two continued to be unconvincing. It worries us that he's playing a position he's never played for Juventus, but he may prove his worth playing in another midfield position.”