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Bright All Whites, pale Italy
Guest Column

Shyam Thapa

World champions should always take pride in their achievements. You expect nothing less than a swagger when a Fabio Cannavaro or a Gianluca Zambrotta walks on to the pitch, that too against a nation which doesn’t have a single player of repute. There are at least seven players in Marcelo Lippi’s squad who know what it means to win the biggest prize in football, but that was four years ago and appears no more than a dream now, especially with the nightmarish fare churned out by the four-time World Cup winners.

Personally, it was a painful experience to watch the Azzurris during the listless 1-1 draw against a resilient New Zealand side which on Sunday earned their second World Cup point. It’s interesting to note that when New Zealand played Italy in 2009, in a friendly before the Confederations Cup, the Azzurris managed to scrape to a 4-3 win. That too after New Zealand led the world champions thrice.

Kudos to the All Whites for the manner in which they fought. Goalkeeper Mark Paston, who pulled off a couple of incredible saves, deserves special mention. For someone who is 34 now, and turned pro only at the age of 26, it goes to show the hunger and pride in him. Same can be said about their coach Ricki Herbert who knows the pain of losing all World Cup matches (he was a member of the New Zealand side that played in the 1982 World Cup).

Getting an early goal courtesy a defensive lapse and poor anticipation by a seasoned pro like Cannavaro helped an opportunistic Shane Smeltz score his first World Cup goal. Definitely the A-League Golden Boot-winner will have his stock soar in the coming season.

But coming back to Italy.

I won’t hesitate to say that this Italy doesn’t deserve to go very far in the tournament. Even if Lippi’s boys beat Slovaks and qualify for the round of 16, the quality of football that they dished out, for me, is below par to say the least.

I read a Cannavaro comment in the newspapers a few days back. He said that he was “confident” about Italy’s chances “but doesn’t know why”.

I can understand his feelings. He is the defending champions’ captain. For him it is difficult to publicly acknowledge that his team lack the spunk to win. That the ‘X’ factor was missing. The lack of planning had been evident even on Sunday. There was no alternative plan to diffuse New Zealand’s destructive kick-and-clear game plan.

Look at midfielders like Simon Pepe and Claudio Marchisio. The midfield duo didn’t provide a single assist for their forwards. Similarly, Alberto Gilardino didn’t show any urgency upfront. The key to success for a strike-duo is swift inter-changing of positions during build-ups, confusing the opposition’s defensive strategy.

Neither Gilardino nor Vicenzo Iaquinta showed any real intent of breaking free of their markers. If they got a goal, blame it on New Zealand defender Tommy Smith who, in an absolute amateurish act, pulled down Daniele de Rossi.

Coming to strategy, Lippi knows best the logic behind his squad selection but does this side have a set-piece expert to step in for an injured Andrea Pirlo? Otherwise how would one justify not capitalising on even one of the 15 corners the team had on Sunday. None of the balls in looked like troubling the New Zealand defence.

Also, the ineptness while taking cracks at goal was something that’s hard to accept from a world-champion side. Apart from Riccardo Montolivo and substitute Mauro Camoranesi, whose pile driver was kept out by Paston, none of the shots were on target. It was just such a match where none of the Italian players caught the imagination. Maybe it’s time for Lippi to think up something out of the box.

As for Herbert’s stars, whatever be the consequences of their match against Paraguay, their African safari has been a memorable one so far.

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