Few predicted Italy’s World Cup win four years ago, and as seventh favourites, it’ll certainly be an even bigger shock if they do so again this summer.
Many of the same faces remain from the final in Berlin, starting with the manager, who has returned for another crack following an uninspiring spell in charge by Roberto Donadoni. And Marcello Lippi’s 28-man provisional squad also includes old heads Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Mauro Camoranesi.
So questions will be asked regarding their age, particularly given the added issue of playing at altitude at several venues in South Africa. But if they are to take inspiration from anyone, it should be their French opponents that night in 2006, who made the final with thirty-somethings Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Claude Makelele and Zinedine Zidane in the side.
But to focus only on Italy’s elder members would be unfair to the younger talent that Lippi has also brought along, including ex-Man Utd striker Giuseppe Rossi, who scored ten goals for Villarreal this season. Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi is another to keep an eye on following an excellent campaign in the Italian capital, particularly after he was handed a four-match ban at the last World Cup for elbowing USA’s Brian McBride.
Lippi got the mix of experience and youth spot on in qualifying, when the Italians remained unbeaten in ten games and qualified with relative ease ahead of nearest challengers Ireland.
And it can’t be ignored that the draw was kind to Lippi’s men. New Zealand and Slovakia shouldn’t cause them too many headaches, though they’ll certainly need to be on their guard for their opening encounter with Paraguay, who finished just one point behind Brazil in South American qualifying.
So barring a shock in that game, Italy should qualify as group leaders, probably resulting in another less-than-daunting encounter with Cameroon or Denmark.
It means that it could be the quarter-finals before the Italians meet their first international powerhouse, by which time they could well have played themselves into form. Just like four years ago, Italy should not be written off.