Lippi forced to rely on Serie A 'B' team
WHEN Internazionale won the Champions League final last week, they became the first team to do so without a single national player in their starting line-up. It was not a problem for Jose Mourinho but the ever-decreasing pool of home-grown talent is starting to take its toll on Italy's chances of winning a major international tournament any time soon.
"Inter are Champions of Europe and now it is the turn of Italy in the World Cup," said coach Marcello Lippi. But the four-time winners will not be able to call on the foreign legion that saw Mourinho's side conquer Europe.
Fabio Capello was apparently stunned by the lack of home-grown options in England when he took over as coach two years ago and it's a similar national shortage that blights Lippi -- two great leagues filled with foreign stars and boasting recent Champions League winners but with an ever-diminishing selection of eligible players for the national team boss to pick from.
Lippi's side came through qualifying Group 8 undefeated with seven wins and three draws -- it was enough to see off the Republic of Ireland but not enough to convince Italian football fans that their side has even the remotest chance of maintaining their world crown.
Like Capello, Italy's manager has preferred to name a larger group from which he can cull five names on the last day of the month, rather than pick a straight 23 with a list of possible reserves.
He has announced a 28-man squad that will be reduced to 23 tomorrow. The exclusion of Sampdoria forward Antonio Cassano whilst predictable was the biggest disappointment in a conservative selection. Juventus left-back Fabio Grosso was a more surprising absentee. He paid for his club side's poor season although team-mates Giorgio Chiellini and Fabio Cannavaro did not.
Fourteen of the group played no part in the triumph in Germany four years ago. And the fact that there are only nine survivors from that win has been used by Lippi to quell the suggestion he feels some sort of debt to that group of players and therefore a reluctance to rebuild.
Other notable absentees are Roma captain Francesco Totti and Mario Balotelli -- the Inter striker he kicked out at in this season's Italian Cup final. "Everyone knows Totti cannot play a match every three days," said Lippi. "I hold him in great esteem but we all know his fitness problems. They have been well documented this season."
Balotelli might have been an ideal replacement but Lippi ultimately decided it was a gamble that he could not take. Few doubt the ability of the striker who picked Italy over Ghana, the country of his natural parents this year. But his temperament made his inclusion in a group that will have to cohabit for over a month if they are to repeat the feat of four years ago too much of a risk.
Mourinho's failure to tame Balotelli last season was perhaps all the proof Lippi needed that the job was beyond him. The images of him throwing his Inter shirt down as he left the field at the Camp Nou after a win over Barcelona in this season's Champions League semi-final are the most enduring of a turbulent season. He was subsequently reprimanded -- by the throat -- in the tunnel by Marco Materazzi and it was a lack of respect that will have helped Lippi finally decide to overlook him.
Materazzi -- one of the heroes of Italy's World Cup success last time around -- stood up for Inter and for Italy when he took Balotelli to task and likewise when Totti kicked out at the player in the Italian Cup final he seemed to do so with the full force of the country behind him. "To be picked to represent your country is the ultimate dream and honour for any player and your personal conduct needs to be at a certain level" said Lippi justifying why he had left out the Inter man.
Such is Balotelli's lack of popularity -- and none more so than with his own fans at Inter -- that there was no real debate about him being included in Lippi's squad. But fans are upset by the exclusion of Cassano. The Sampdoria striker would have given Italy a touch of the unexpected although, it could be argued, that unpredictable streak is the very thing keeping him out of the squad.
When managed by Capello at Real Madrid, Cassano had a blazing row with the Italian coach in the dressing-room after a game against Tarragona in which he was an unused substitute. He recalled in his autobiography: "He had me warming up for the entire second half. In the dressing-room after the game I told him he was as false as Monopoly money."
The striker was left out of the side for weeks and when he was finally pardoned by Capello and welcomed back, he reoffended being caught on camera imitating and complaining about the current England boss before a game in which he had travelled with the team but was left out of the final team selection. He never played for Madrid again.
Neutrals would have enjoyed the presence of a man who also wrote in his autobiography: "I have slept with between 600 and 700 women. It was easier in Madrid because you could invite them up to your hotel. One of the waiters was my friend. After the sex he would bring me four croissants and I would swap them for the girl." But Lippi like Capello has erred on the side of caution and left the colourful Cassano at home with his pastries.
The fact that Alberto Gilardino top-scored in qualification with only four goals -- three of which came in one game against Cyprus -- underlines Italy's striking problems. Without Cassano and without Totti, who many felt should have been risked to play the same bit-part role he performed in the last World Cup when his recovery from a broken leg prevented him from playing every minute, the magic will have to come from Giuseppe Rossi.
The Villarreal striker is the only player in Lippi's squad currently playing abroad and despite a poor season for his club he will be asked, along with Udinese frontman Antonio Di Natale and Juventus forward Vincenzo laquinta to provide the magic in attack. The former Manchester United man missed almost two months of this season travelling to the United States to visit his dying father. He returned to the Yellow Submarine to join their disappointing run-in as they failed to make it into Europe.
Italians are hoping, with fewer games than most in his legs, Rossi can go some way to emulating his namesake from 28 years ago in Spain -- Paolo Rossi netted six times as Italy lifted the trophy -- but optimism in general is at a premium.
"I detect a lot of scepticism this time," said Lippi after naming that preliminary squad. "I ask that we show a bit more confidence in these players. They love the Italian team more than can be imagined."
Italy play a friendly on June 3 against Mexico in Brussels and then two days later in Geneva against Switzerland. By then, Lippi will have trimmed his squad as necessary and the final 23 will travel to Johannesburg on June 8.
For all they lack, they can still count on 31-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and there will be no shortage of leadership and experience in the shape of 36-year-old Fabio Cannavaro and 31-year-old Gennaro Gattuso in midfield. Daniele De Rossi comes off the back of an excellent season with Roma and Andrea Pirlo will join him in a familiar looking midfield. And of course they have 61-year-old coach Lippi on the bench -- a man who has seen it all before.
Since his return to the international set-up following the failure of Roberto Donadoni's side in the European Championships, Italy have gone 31 games without defeat. He is still unsure of his best XI but whoever he puts out he has assured supporters that Italy will be "inferior to nobody".
If and when they are, as seems likely, the finger of blame will be pointed less at Lippi and more at a Serie A competition which is making his and his successor's job increasingly difficult. (© Independent News Service)