Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Italy Turns To The Youth As The Way Forward

By Carlo Garganese, Goal.com

Ask any non-Italian football fan for their view on the Azzurri, and more often than not you will be greeted with a response, something along the lines of “old team.” While sometimes these kinds of charges are fuelled by jealousy and ignorance, there can be no doubting that in recent times they have been accompanied by an element of truth.

At Euro 2008, 14 of Italy’s original 23-man squad were over the age of 30, while the team that took to the field in the opening game against Holland was the oldest starting 11 in the history of the competition at 31 years and 56 days.

It has been stated on numerous occasions, since the Euros, that the time has now come for the Italian national team to turn the page and begin a new youthful era ahead of the 2010 World Cup. However, there were fears that Marcello Lippi was set to ignore these appeals, as his first couple of squads since returning to the helm were mainly composed of players who helped him win the World Cup in Germany two years ago.

The results were not great. Although Italy drew 2-2 with Austria in a friendly, before winning both of their opening World Cup qualifiers against Cyprus (2-1) and Georgia (2-0), the performances in these games were far from impressive, and indeed the Azzurri really did look like an “old team.”

Lippi finally rang the changes ahead of the double-header with Bulgaria and Montenegro. Mature or underachieving players such as Alessandro Del Piero and Andrea Barzagli were dropped from the squad, while four fresh faces were included – Christian Maggio, Fabiano Santacroce, Giuseppe Rossi and Simone Pepe. The youthful Riccardo Montolivo, Daniele Bonera and Antonio Nocerino all returned, too.

The Italy starting XI against Bulgaria on Saturday night had an average age of 27 and included debutant Pepe as well as the relatively inexperienced Montolivo and Andrea Dossena, who had just four caps between them. Rossi was also thrown on for his first cap midway through the second half. These were bold moves by Lippi when you consider that an away Bulgaria game could be considered, along with Ireland in Dublin, as Italy’s toughest match in the entire Group 8 calendar.

The results were very promising. Although a rather dour and uneventful game ended in a goalless draw, Italy, who was always going to be happy with a point, was almost always in control. The Azzurri looked solid, organized and authoritative in defense and midfield, and they were never in any danger of conceding a goal. In fact, Bulgaria did not create a chance all night, and goalkeeper Marco Amelia did not make a save until the 87th minute.

Compare Italy’s display on Saturday to its last away game in September when it was torn apart at times by Cyprus and was extremely lucky to win, and the improvements are marked. Granted, Italy’s fitness is far superior now than it was a month ago, but you must also take into consideration the fact that Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Fabio Grosso, Mauro Camoranesi, as well as a number of others including the blossoming Angelo Palombo, were injured for the trip to Sofia.

The fact that a youthful Italy could assert itself so well in a difficult environment is surely proof that the way forward now for Lippi over the coming months is to retain most of the young players. Italy is in a relatively weak group, so now is the time to prepare the youngsters mentally for South Africa.

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