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Thursday, May 6, 2010
Italy looks to defend despite aging roster

By Gus Martins
Special to ESPN.com

If Marcello Lippi were a politician, he'd be one of the few of late not to run on a platform of change. It appears Italy's World Cup-winning mentor is making few modifications to the aging group that led the country to its fourth Jules Rimet World Cup trophy at Germany 2006.

"I think he is trying to go with the same group as the last time but I don't think he is going to get the same results," said Ferdi DeMatthaeis, a former New York Cosmos player and now a coach at the IMG Soccer Academy in Bradenton, Fla. "He wants to go with the defense from Juventus. [Fabio] Cannavaro is struggling because of age [he's 36]. He is trying to call [Alessandro] Nesta with AC Milan [who retired from international play]. He doesn't think we have the right new people yet. He still believes in the old players and feels he can get away with it."

DeMatthaeis, who played for the Cosmos in the early '80s after leaving Italy as a teenager, said that at this point it seems likely that Lippi won't call Sampdoria forward Antonio Cassano, 27, one of the dazzling talents in Serie A this season, and Inter Milan's budding but controversial Mario Balotelli, 20, because of a belief that each player could do as much to unsettle team harmony as to penetrate their opponents' back lines.

"It doesn't appear he plans on using Cassano, although he is one of the top players in Italy," DeMatthaeis said. "The whole Italian population loves him but supposedly he is a troublemaker. Again, the unity of the locker room is very important to Lippi. That's the same reason he is unlikely to bring in Balotelli, even though he is talented but stubborn. He is creating some problems with Inter Milan. It will be interesting to see if he reconsiders, but I don't think Lippi is someone to change his mind."

Former Italian national team goalkeeper Walter Zenga seemed to give Lippi a vote of confidence, saying that this is a coach known to create the right climate around his teams.

"Repeating is always difficult because it depends on many things," he said. "But Italy have something more than most of its opponents and that's experience."

Zenga refused to criticize the 62-year-old coach, who recently was quoted as saying a team of older players can withstand the grind of a World Cup because it is a short, if intense, tournament.

"The national team is not a club," Zenga said. "Of course Lippi takes into consideration all the best players of the league, but I think that the most important thing for him is to play with his players he trusts. After that, anything can happen. Also, remember the World Cup is at the end of the season and it depends on how his players feel, physical and mentally."

After winning the tournament four years ago in a shootout versus France following a 1-1 score, Lippi stepped down from his post and the federation handed the reins to former star Roberto Donadoni. But after a tepid performance in the 2008 European Championship, when Italy was knocked out in penalties in the quarterfinals by eventual champion Spain, Donadoni was sacked.

"They fired Donadoni after he flopped in the European Championship and they saw they weren't going anywhere," said DeMatthaeis. "Then the team got back to the state of mind of what Lippi is doing now. Personally, I don't think they are going to win it, but the last thing to do is to underestimate them. The reason they won in 2006 was not because they had great goal scoring. It was great defense and team chemistry."

In goal the Azzurri still have Gigi Buffon, who hasn't been stellar this season with Juventus but is still among the world's best at his position. Nesta maintains he is not returning to international play. Accompanying Cannavaro in central defense is a bright spot in Giorgio Chiellini of Juventus. Considered one of the best defenders in Italy, at 25 he is also at the height of his power. Holdovers Fabio Grosso, 32; Gianluca Zambrotta, 33; and Massimo Oddo, 34 in June, also appear in the mix. Andrea Pirlo, 31 by the start of the tournament, and Mauro Camoranesi, 33, also look like locks in midfield along with Gennaro Gattuso, 32.

"These are all guys who maybe four years ago were at their peak," DeMatthaeis said. "Maybe right now they don't have the same energy or are at peak to carry the load. I don't think he has a clear picture for the final roster. A lot will be determined by the last two months. Injuries and the form of the players will be determining factors."

Another concern shared by many observers is the motivation for this group of players. After winning a title four years ago, can they come back and do it again?

"Personally, I think we need energy and dynamic young players," DeMatthaeis said. "Bringing in young players without the experience isn't necessarily the answer. So it has to be a combination. But as it stands, the older team will need to use their energy properly and know when to push and not to push. I personally think a nice mix of some experience and talent is best. Most important, though, is how hungry are the players? Some have already won the World Cup and are not as hungry as somebody wanting to win for the first time."

Italy has a history of bringing in players who weren't expected to do much but left their mark on the tournament, like Paolo Rossi in 1982 Salvatore Schillaci in 1990 -- both of whom led the tournament in scoring -- and Luca Toni in 2006.

But using well-known players as opposed to bringing in younger talent could also be a justification for the coach in the event of failure.

"It is an excuse," DeMatthaeis said. "It could be a good backup plan. He can always say I brought in the best players in the country. The World Cup is every four years and I think you should recycle some players. He did give a chance to a lot of players. Some got called for one game. I'm still hopeful. I haven't seen the final roster. There are still five or six spots open. A lot depends on injuries and other things."

Gus Martins is a freelance writer who has covered two World Cups and MLS for more than a decade.