Thursday, October 16, 2008

Italy v Montenegro, October 15, World Cup Qualifier

This was my first look at Italy post the Euro '08 shambles and this game saw Italy under Lippi reach a run of 30 unbeaten games which puts him at par with the legendary Vittorio Pozzo and though Lippi has one World Cup lesser to his credit, the achievement is still remarkable. The Italian performance though, was anything but remarkable.

This Italian team is not the same one as Doandoni's European misfits. Amelia in goal, Dossena at left back, Pepe at right mid-field, de Natale on the left, Aquilani as number 10 and Gillardino as the striker were all either not in the squad or were starting from the bench just a few months ago. Add to that the return of captain Cannavaro to the back four and this was a new team all right.

I haven't bothered to do any research on this but three players from the Euro team who impressed me most were all missing and if it was not because of injury, then I cannot understand why. Grosso and Camoranesi had provided the team with some spark and Pirlo had showed glimpses of why he is a great player but all three were gone.

Anyway, the game kicked off and in no time it was apparent that Montenegro would struggle to get anything out of this. Three or four times in the first seven minutes, Italy threatened to score but were just about kept out. Not so in the eighth minute. One of Aquilani, de Rossi or Gattuso (not sure which one at all) played the ball wide right to Pepe from the centre of the field and the Montenegrin left back panicked and dived on to the ball rolling it towards Pepe and removing himself out of the equation. Pepe crossed to Gillardino who thought he could finish it. The goalkeeper parried the shot and it fell nicely for the oncoming Aquilani who finished it with ease. Another day, another goalkeeper, it may have not been so, but Italy had looked good for the lead up until then.

Following that opener, the Italians were strangely subdued. They defended deep and allowed the opposition to come to the box which was quite unnecessary as on the evidence of what had been seen so far, they could easily have won all the battles in midfield and hardly allowed the visitors a sight on goal if they so wished. Instead they sat back and invited trouble.

Montenegro were playing something like a 4-3-3 and had clearly identified Dossena as the weakest link. They played the ball wide right when they got the chance and one such move led to a cross that should have ended in goal but was blocked off the line by Zambrotta.

When Montenegro did score it was on the counter, which was strange because it was one of the rare occasions when Italy did have so many men forward. And the goal itself must have made Lippi tear out his grey hair.

Vucinic had the ball and carried it to the edge of the Italian box with a couple of team mates in support. Doing defensive duty were Chiellini, Cannavaro and one more with Chiellini the player on Vucinic. Then when he reached the edge of the box, the Montenegro skipper seemed for a moment to have run out of ideas and could not find a pass to his team mates and you thought that the counter was over, till he suddenly played the ball a little wide on the left, made space around Chiellini and shot into goal. No way should Chiellini have allowed him to create that space and get that shot, especially as he seemed to have his man well covered.

Italy again went on the offensive and regained their lead soon after, with Aquilani's shot (from de Natale's cross) getting deflected into goal. And there were no more goals after that so, Italy won 2-1 on the night.

The Italian's preference for defending deep is something I have already mentioned, but their approach to attack was something that baffled me as well. Player-on-player they seemed far superior and I expected them to play the ball through mid field, have full backs forward and generally keep the ball in the attacking third all the time, but that was far from what happened. Every time the Italians started a move, you saw Gattusso or de Rossi approach the centre line (the other stayed back) and then try and pick out one of the four players in the opposing half with a longish pass. With the wide men really wide and with Aquilani placed somewhere near the edge of the box, there was no flow in the play and whether the possession turned into attack was dependent upon the quality of the pass and the opposition's defence.

The fullbacks and the second midfielder did eventually get forward but it would only be if their teammates had managed to collect the ball and keep it there for some time. Then when the ball was lost, they would all go and collect again around Amelia and wait for the opponents to arrive with the ball.

I expected the second half to be different. I expected the Italians to fight for every ball in mid-field and defend up front rather than at the back but it did not happen. By the time, I returned from my grilled fish and risotto dinner (consumed in the hotel restaurant at breathtaking speed at half-time), Dossena had been substituted (for Bonera) but that was about the only thing that changed for the Italians.

And while they were never, for the remainder of the game under any serious threat, I just could not understand why they left the possibility of the threat open. Montenegro managed to spend much more time in attack than the quality of their players and play deserved and I hoped a free-kick or a defensive error would lead to an equalizer to change the Italian approach. Vucinic was their main man and if something was to happen, it would have to be him but on some occasions he fell just short. When he was substituted in injury time he received a very well deserved applause from the visiting fans and he acknowledged them with some dejection at not having completed the job, but by then he must have been tired enough to drop dead.

And so Pozzo's record was equalled. Lippi is undoubtedly a great manager and their approach reflected exactly what we have always heard and expect from an Italian team. I'm not convinced though, that he has the team to pull it off against tougher opponents though. The defence is not looking good enough to withstand a continuous onslaught from a more accomplished team and the target man and the wide men may also lack the ability to create much without additional support. If the strategy remains the same, he needs a stronger man up front, more creative players on the wide and defenders who can play every minute of all games like Zambrotta. Or, he could keep more or less the same players, be willing to expose his defence just by letting the fullbacks go up in support, look at shorter passes and maybe a more creative approach. But either ways, he needs a new striker!

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