Italy are a powerhouse in world football, there cannot be any argument on this issue. They go into every World Cup as serious challengers. Germany 2006 was no different. Despite the match-fixing turmoil, I considered them to be among five title-contenders, but to be honest, didnít expect them to go beyond the semi-finals.
How did Lippi transform a team with several scarcely-heard names into a world-beating outfit' Well, the 58-year-old coach made his players believe in themselves and gave them all the freedom they needed to combine flair with solidity.
The bedrock of Italyís football has been the famous catenaccio. Over the years, their philosophy has been to organise a sound defensive system through which even a fly canít escape, and then hit the opposition with sudden, pacy counters.
Lippi didnít tamper with the basic Italian structure. Like his predecessors, he put enough emphasis on defence. But, he had the courage to impress on his men that a defensive-minded team can also attack in an organised manner.
| Cannavaro and Lippi
In Lippiís modified system, everyone could participate in attack provided he ensured that there was somebody to plug the gap if the need arose. And so we saw Materazzi coming up from the heart of defence to head in the equaliser in the final, left-back Grosso positioning himself at the right-inside position to swing in a left-footer past Lehmann, right-back Zambrotta blasting a right-footer into the Ukrainian net.
Italy may not have scored too many in the competition, but their 12 goals in seven matches came from 10 players. Thatís a telling statistic. That was Lippiís triumph. He had just one striker in his line-up, but encouraged five players to move up in support, either from defence or midfield.
In a way, it reminded me of the famous Ďtotal footballí concept Michel introduced for the Dutch team in 1974. Everyone had to be prepared to play all kind of roles.
Unlike most other coaches, Lippi was a picture of calmness personified on the bench, hardly betraying any emotion. It told me that the man believed in himself and in the ability of his team.
If I were to pick a fault with Parreira in hindsight, it would be that he didnít give Ronaldinho the freedom, which Lippi allowed the Italians. The Brazilian superstar played forgettable football, but his coach should have asked him to play as a forward.
Lippi apart, Italyís other big star was their captain Cannavaro. He was simply unbeatable in the heart of defence. The bigger the occasion, the taller he stood, as if to make a statement that the absence of Nesta wouldnít make any difference.
Not the tallest of footballers, Cannavaroís best quality is his ability to tackle cleanly. He won most of the aerial duels with tall strikers like Shevchenko and Klose, too. However threatening the rival player may have looked in danger zone, Cannavaro was always there to cope with the situation without conceding a penalty or a free-kick.
He showed the speed, the agility and the balance to not only excel in defensive work but also move up to help the medios from time to time. With side-backs Zambrotta and Grosso often overlapping, Cannavaro had to cover their areas as well.
Cannavaro was as much in the limelight as forwards and attacking midfielders. He lost out on the Golden Boot to Zidane by just 35 points. I canít remember the last time a defender coming so close to getting the best playerís award in a World Cup' Thatís how good Cannavaro was.