Veteran Gianluigi Buffon is still one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
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Goalkeeper Gigi Buffon is one of the very best in the world, possibly one of the greatest ever. Four years ago he was instrumental to the Azzurri's success, conceding just two goals in the entire tournament, one of them a penalty kick, the other Cristian Zaccardo's bizzarre own goal against the USA. He's the kind of keeper who can get hot and carry a team.
Andrea Pirlo is the midfield playmaker who makes Italy tick, much of the team's creativity and rhythm will come from him. He has not had the best of seasons at AC Milan, but still has the ability and vision to unlock any opposing defense. Daniele De Rossi, another holdover from 2006 (perhaps most remembered for that infamous elbow on U.S. striker Brian McBride which earned him a four-game suspension) is a high-energy box-to-box player known for his crunching tackles and long-range shooting. Up front, late bloomer Toto' Di Natale (two-thirds of his Italy caps came after his thirtieth birthday) is dangerous especially when cutiting in from the wing, though the scoring burden will fall on the shoulders of Alberto Gilardino a solid all-around center forward who struggled on the big stage at AC Milan but has been banging them in for Fiorentina.
At the back, the athletic Giorgio Chiellini is the standout in a back four which is still marshalled by captain Fabio Cannavaro, who turns 37 in September and has lost a step. He'll need to turn back the clock if Italy is to go far in this tournament. Right back Gianluca Zambrotta, stellar in 2006, is another veteran whose best days may be behind him.
What to watch for
Italy coach Marcello Lippi chose to remain loyal to many of the players who triumphed in Germany 2006, banking on experience and team unity. It's potentially a risky decision, as it has meant forsaking the services of Francesco Totti, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, three very talented players , but also three guys with a checkered disciplinary record. Veterans like Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Fabio Grosso and Mauro Camoranesi are a gamble and much will depend on whether Lippi can coax one last hurrah out of them.
The defense, traditionally a strong point for the Azzurri, does not look as solid as in years past, partly through age, partly through injury (even the reliable Buffon missed a chunk of the season). There is a lack of depth in certain positions - especially if something should happen to Pirlo -- and, despite an undefeated romp through qualifying, confidence is ebbing. Then again, confidence was low in 1982 and 2006 and, on both occasions, Italy went on to win it all.
Key match in group stage
June 14 vs Paraguay. The good news is that, on paper at least, the draw has been kind to the Azzurri. Paraguay looks to be the stiffest competition in the group. Navigate unscathed past the South Americans-- even a draw will do -- and things suddenly start to look up, with New Zealand and Slovakia next. On the other hand, slip up early and the merciless Italian press -- already suspicious of Lippi's approach this tiime around -- will get the knives out.
Celebrity scouting report: Andreas Seppi*
I think maybe it's normal, two years after winning a World Cup, that a team might not feel as pushed or pumped up for the [European Championships]. For sure this year at the World Cup, they're going to show some good football again. I don't think they have enough to win the World Cup this year, because the team is not like the teams of past years. But Italy is always a team to beat, so I hope they can go as far as possible. ... The team's strength, as always, is the defense. Buffon was one of the best goalkeepers at the last World Cup. Now he's getting older, but he's still very good. The attack is not the best, but they didn't score many goals during the last World Cup either. ... The key players on the team are Buffon -- goalkeeper, obviously, for Italy is very important -- along with Pirlo and [Marco] Borriello. ... I like watching Pirlo and Boriello, as they also play for my favorite team AC Milan. We'll have to depend on the defense again to not let up a lot of goals. ... Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia is a good group for Italy. Normally, they shouldn't have many problems advancing out of a group like this. ... Making the semifinals would be great for this team, but we still hope for another title this year. But it's going to be difficult.
*The top-ranked player from Italy on the ATP Tour was born in Bolzano. As told to Bryan Armen Graham.