Ten months ahead of the World Cup, the defending champions look nervous and edgy.
Age not on Azzurri's side but time still is
Ten months ahead of the World Cup, the defending champions look nervous and edgy. Italy did not need Fifa's latest world ranking table to remind them that their stock has fallen - the Azzurri have just dropped a rung, fourth to fifth, which is the difference between a semi-final and a quarter-final if you want to transpose the form guide into real life - because they already had the evidence of the Confederations Cup.
There, in June, they won one match and lost two, thrashed by Brazil and beaten by Egypt. Tomorrow, they play their first game since, a friendly away in Switzerland and, in the process of reconstructing morale, as their head coach Marcello Lippi admitted "there is no time to lose". To correct Lippi, there is a time to lose. Twelve months ahead of a major tournament, you can lose matches: such defeats are tolerable for world champions in the name of experimentation or learning.
The Confederations Cup will not be remembered very long, and, as a former manager of Italy said not long ago: "You cannot rely on Italians' form in non-competitive matches". The Confeds Cup was no pre-season kickabout, as tonight's match in Basel essentially is, but to judge Lippi's squad entirely on the basis of a sloppy showing against the Egyptians and a pallid one against Brazil would be too hasty.
The trouble for Italy and Lippi is that the alibis of experimentation or learning are hard to locate. The best excuse Italy had for failing in South Africa was fatigue after a long domestic season for players who are a little long in the tooth. Lippi has become tetchy about the age of his squad. But, like in some top Italian club sides, it is a striking feature of the team's spine: Fabio Cannavaro is 36 next month, Rino Gattuso turns 32 next year, Andrea Pirlo is 30.
Lippi challenges his inquisitors to name names when they ask about the scant new blood in his teams and his lieutenants bristle even more. Cannavaro, the Italy captain, stated simply: "There are no more Tottis, Baggios or Del Pieros." Actually there are. Francesco Totti is still playing; so is Alex Del Piero. But, mindful of the age of his team, Lippi won't select the latter - the 34-year-old Juventus captain - and on Monday said he will not try to force the Roma totem, Totti out of his decision to no longer to play international football.
Lippi also continues to turn a blind eye to a significant - though not a universal - lobby for a return to the Azzurri for Antonio Cassano, the nearest equivalent that a section of the public see to the improvising, creative genius that Italian football now has to a Roberto Baggio. Like Baggio, Sampdoria's Cassano is a maverick. Unlike Baggio, he is also a hothead. He has gained the lobby on the basis of having had one good season with the Genoese club after two bad ones at Real Madrid and several colourful ones at Roma.
"The priority is to create a group of players," said Lippi at the announcement of his squad, "who will put themselves at the service of the team as a whole." Lippi does not trust Cassano, preferring the successful formula of 2006 - a solid, rugged and spirited Azzurri. For tonight, he has chosen some rookies, like Juve's Claudio Marchisio and Genoa's Domenico Criscito for the first time. Cannavaro meanwhile should set a new Azzurri record with his 127th cap, overtaking Paolo Maldini.