Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Italy: A tournament of firsts

As current world champions all eyes will be on the Italy this summer and nothing less than victory in Austria/Switzerland will do. That may not seem like a tall order for a team that boasts four World Cups in the trophy cabinet (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006) but the Azzurri have only a single triumph in the European Championships and that came back in 1968.


Italy's coach Roberto Donadoni.

It has often been said that the lack of whipping boys at the Euros makes it a tougher competition to win than World Cup and Italy's record would seem to bear this out.

Roberto Donadoni is the man charged with delivering a second European triumph to Italy but he is a relatively young manager who is learning on the job.

Appointed in the wake of Italy's 2006 World Cup glory the 44-year-old succeeded the hugely experienced Marcello Lippi and inherited the burden of expectation that goes with coaching such a historically trophy-laden nation.

The Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio even admitted publicly that Donandoni's appointment represented something of a gamble - his managerial CV being somewhat sparse - but that the former international had all the qualities to become a great coach.

However, the Azzurri began their campaign in underwhelming fashion, with a 1-1 home draw to Lithuania. But this was not the shock it appeared at first glance because many of the triumphant Italian side were still basking in the glory of the World Cup and Donadoni's experimental side became a victim of their own malaise.

When France avenged their 2006 World Cup final defeat with a 3-1 victory at the Stade de France in September of the same year the nation snapped back to reality and the wisdom of Donadoni's appointment began to be questioned.

Despite his 63 caps as an Italian international and serving under illustrious coaches such as Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello as member of AC Milan's all-conquering team of the late eighties and early nineties, his total experience of top-flight management amounted to two seasons with Livorno in Serie A.

However, the FIGC gave Donadoni a vote of confidence and the Azzurri never looked back as they went trough the remainder of the qualification campaign unbeaten. The Italians drew 0-0 with France at the San Siro. Then, with strikers Luca Toni and Pippo Inzaghi injured, Donadoni called upon Udinese striker Antonio di Natale to come up with the goods against Ukraine.

It was a brave move by the Italian tactician as Di Natale rose to the occasion, scoring both goals to re-energise the push for qualification as they moved into second place above France.

Italy beat Scotland, the form team of the qualifying group, at a raucous Hampden Park thanks to a 90th minute winner from Christian Panucci and then secured top spot, three points ahead of second-placed France, with a 3-1 success against the Faroe Islands in the final match of qualifying.

After a stuttering start, Donadoni passed his first test as manager of the national team and now he heads into more unknown territory: tournament football. Although the likes of veteran defender Paolo Maldini and talisman Francesco Totti have now retired from international football, Donadoni can still call upon aid from an experienced group of players; World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro remains at the centre of defence and Gennaro Gattuso still marshals midfield.

Juventus captain Alessandro Del Piero was recalled for Euro 2008. after scoring 18 goals in Serie A this season. The 33-year-old has the experience of six international tournaments to draw upon.


Italy striker Luca Toni

But in order to get any playing time the veteran striker will have to depose the man of the moment, Luca Toni Varchetta Delle Cave.

Something of a late bloomer, the 30-year-old Luca Toni played most of his early football in the lower reaches of Italian football and it was only following a move to Palermo in 2003 that he began to make a name for himself. Following a €10million switch to Fiorentina Toni really flourished, scoring 31 goals in Serie A to secure the 2005/06 Capocannonieri and European Golden Boot.

Despite his advancing years Toni forced himself into the Italian team for the 2006 World Cup, where he missed only one game and scored two goals as the Italians lifted the trophy. The 6ft 5in striker continued to play a key role in qualifying for Euro 2008 and since moving to Bayern Munich last summer from Fiorentina, Toni has also shone in the Bundesliga.

The tall target man has grown from strength to strength to become one of the most highly-rated forwards in Europe. He scores with his head, with power, and has good agility for a big man. But he also makes goals for others.

He has become something of a talisman for the Azzurri and the former Serie C1 striker, who endured periods at teams such as Fiorenzuola and Lodigiani, will have to be at his best as Italy look to escape from the 'Group of Death' at Euro 2008.

Drawn alongside the Netherlands, Romania and France it will be a tough task. The Italians have not beaten Les Bleus without the help of penalties since the 1978 World Cup and they may well have to do so to progress to the knockout phase.

Euro 2008 will prove to be a tournament of firsts for Donadoni and his Italy team. Even if they are one of the favourites to win the whole thing.

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