unity the key for azzurri
ROME - The ability to stick together when things get serious, added to the country's propensity to believe in miracles, are Italy's best cards as the Azzurri squad look to retain their title at the 2010 World Cup finals.
The Italians are in Group F, where they will play against Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. In 2006, the fourth lifting of the trophy after a penalty shootout with France was the triumph of what coach Marcello Lippi, 61, likes to call "the spirit of the group".
Indeed, it took a solid and determined bunch to win the title without a single player comparable to Italian stars of the past, like Roberto Baggio or the 1982 world champion Paolo Rossi.
As a group, however, Italy's 2006 squad were deadly. At the finals in Germany, they had 10 players on target - three of them defenders - to score 12 goals, while conceding a single (own) goal and a penalty.
Rather oddly, Lippi deserted the group he created before the celebrations were over, but returned two years later to replace his successor Roberto Donadoni.
Evil tongues noted how Lippi, now a national hero, seemed to go into hiding in 2006 as Italian football was rocked by a massive corruption scandal hinging largely on his former club, Juventus.
Whatever his role in the affair, and without any charge against him, Lippi has gone back to his job of creating a tough, winning group for the 2010 spectacle.
His squad cut a dismal figure at the 2009 Confederations Cup, then had few problems in winning a fairly easy 2010 qualification group.
Azzurri's situation now looks similar to that of 2006 - or maybe a little worse. With a comeback from Luca Toni quite unlikely, Lippi has no clinical striker to rely on, unless Vincenzo Iaquinta, Alberto Gilardino, Riccardo Pazzini or Antonio Di Natale can shift up a gear .
The backbone of the team has remained the same, meaning that keeper Gianluigi Buffon, captain Fabio Cannavaro, Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta are four years older as they man the defence, ranging in age from 32 to 36 next year.
Midfielders Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo also hope that their experience has increased with age as Lippi has found no rising star among the newcomers he tested, including Sampdoria's highly rated Antonio Cassano.
Success for Lippi as coach would make Italy level with five-times World Cup winners Brazil.
Before lifting Italy's fourth World Cup in 2006, he built his reputation as coach at Juventus. In two stints with the Turin side, he won five Serie A titles between 1994 and 2003. In 1996, he won the Intercontinental Cup with Juve, which makes him the only trainer to have won world titles with a club and a national team. In South Africa, Lippi hopes to follow the path of Vittorio Pozzo, who steered Italy to two consecutive world titles in 1934 and 1938.
With the 2006 world title, Buffon, 31, topped a career that he spent for the most part at Juventus, where he won two Serie A titles after an early stint at Parma. Equally effective between the posts and in tackling strikers, Buffon closed the 2006 World Cup beaten by an own goal and a penalty and came in second behind Ballon d'Or winner Fabio Cannavaro. - Sapa-DPA