x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Dazzling Brazil show Italy's flaws

As his unbeaten run of 31 matches as an international manager came to an end on a chilly London night, the ice-cool Marcello Lippi himself said the statistic had in any case meant little to him.

As Marcello Lippi's unbeaten run of 31 matches as an international manager came to an end on a chilly London night, ice-cool Lippi himself said the statistic had in any case meant little to him. It was always an odd record anyway, given that two thirds of the way through compiling it, Lippi took two years out from the job of coaching the azzurri. The figure that does matter is this: 2010. That's when Lippi's Italy need to look unbeatable, at least for a month, if they are to retain the World Cup. And, as far as Lippi is concerned, 2010 should not be confused for 2006.

Lippi's critics ahead of Tuesday's friendly defeat against a Brazil team who often dazzled on their way to a 2-0 win at the Emirates stadium had begun to diagnose in him symptoms of being caught in time, of not having moved on from the admirations he held when Italy lifted the World Cup in Berlin over 18 months ago. As Brazil danced through the Italian defence, the doomsayers were reminded that while Fabio Cannavaro's performances in the 2006 World Cup made him the European Footballer of the Year, his displays, notably for Real Madrid in the period since, have not maintained the same consistency. Lippi may also have been reminded why Gianluca Zambrotta was ushered so willingly out of Barcelona last summer. Zambrotta seems more and more to betray positional weaknesses in defence, though he still moved forward with threat from time to time against the Brazilians.

Lippi will hope that the carelessness in possession of Andrea Pirlo that allowed Robinho to skittle past Zambrotta and company and score his splendid, soloist goal was a reminder only that Pirlo has missed many matches this season and is plainly rusty. Lippi's concerns are like Serie A's broad concerns: That much of the best talent is past the optimum age for footballers to be at their peak and the successors are not rushing through to take up the baton.

Italy fielded Riccardo Montolivo, 23, and Simone Pepe, 25, in the starting XI and once they were replaced with a pair of older world champions, Simone Perrotta and Mauro Camoranesi, the team improved. Further ominous news, meanwhile, arrived from the U21 squad about the depth of resources Italy might count on up front ahead of next summer's World Cup with another tale about a late night involving Mario Balotelli, the Inter Milan teenager whose attitude has vexed Jose Mourinho this season. Better news came in the form of the zip the diminutive Giuseppe Rossi gave the azzurri against Brazil.

By the time he was on, Italy were chasing the game. Yet Brazil thoroughly deserved to triumph. The correspondent from the O Globo newspaper in Brazil thought it was the best they had performed together for four years, and they did so without Kaka, who had withdrawn injured, and with a swagger and flair that delighted the watching Londoners. Among them were plenty of motivated individuals. Dunga, the head coach in the retro sheepskin jacket, had learned earlier in the day that his most successful predecessor, Luiz Felipe Scolari, was out of a job; Scolari's availability may put a little extra pressure on his position. Ronaldinho was a joy, which he has not been for Milan since the autumn. Robinho played some beautiful, tricky football, his feints and shimmies effective rather than just decorative. Elano, often left out of the Manchester City side, shone too. They looked like the famous yellow shirt brought out the best in them, that they are worth better than being on the bench at Milan, or in the mediocre middle of the Premier League, which is where Robinho and Elano's City sit.