by Christopher Shepard
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The Italian's are one of the most successful teams in the World Cup; the Azzurri have made the finals 16 times and won the tournament three times. It has been more than a quarter of a century since Italy hoisted the trophy while Italy won their two other titles in the 1930s in what is considered the World Cup's Stone Age. Needless to say, there is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude when it comes to World Cup play and Italy certainly seems to have had the fates against them.
Regardless of beating Bulgaria 2-1, Italy failed to advance past the group stage of Euro 2004. The Bulgarians started strong and the Italians equalized early in the second half and then took care of the game as they scored a miraculous goal at the end of the second half. However, thanks to a favorable goal differential in the next stage, Denmark and Sweden finished ahead of the Italians and that ended the Azzurri's Euro 2004 quest.
In the 2002 World Cup Italy was upset by South Korea in extra time. The game looked well in the Italian's grasp until, close to the end of regulation, the South Koreans tied the game. This was the team's worst defeat since 1966 when they lost to North Korea. Continuing their string of bad luck Italy also lost the final of Euro 2000 to France on a golden goal and they lost because of penalties in their previous three World Cup appearances. It appears that in international competition the Italians have been their own worst enemy.
That was until the March 1 friendly when the Italians took Germany to the woodshed in Florence. In Germany they are calling the upset, Azzurri's 4-1 pounding of Der Mannschaft, the Florence Fiasco. Even without star Francesco Totti, who is sidelined with a broken ankle, the Italians outplayed and outlasted the World Cup host country and the World Cup 2002 runner-up, Germany. The Germans looked listless and uninspired as Italy's offensive onslaught began in the fourth minute of the game and continued quickly to make it 2-0 after only six minutes of play.
Indeed, by the close of the first half it was clear that the Italians were dominating Germans in all aspects of the game. In fact, the loss has caused such distress to the host country, Germany, that nationals are now so worried about their team that members of German Parliament are demanding that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann explain what is going on with the club.
For the Italians, the win could not have come at a better time. It could be a harbinger that their luck has changed and that the fates have decided to go after another country. In any case, Italy is playing like it is one of the teams to beat - possibly second only to Brazil "on paper" to win World Cup 2006 in Germany.
To start off, Italy will have to advance from its group. This team is in a competitive draw in Group E as they'll meet the Czech Republic and USA, both teams have played well leading up to World Cup and both teams that could pose difficulties for the Italians. The Azzurri will also face Ghana, a team that is likely happy just to be in Germany and a team that shouldn't pose too much threat to the Italians making it through to the second round.
2006 Italy World Cup Odds: BetCRIS has Italy listed at 9/1 to win the 2006 World Cup and this team has been set as the favorite to win Group E at 10/11.
Strengths: Historically, defense has been Azzurri's trademark strength. Even though at times the Italians defense was suspect in the qualifiers, the they allowed an average of less than one goal per match and they won their qualifying group five points ahead of Norway. Indeed the Italians won an impressive seven of ten qualifying matches and they suffered only one loss, to Slovenia, in 2004.
Offensively it seems that only Brazil can match the Italian's strength in depth of attack. There is no shortage of star names, with Del Piero, Totti, Vieri, Cannavaro, Pirlo, Buffon, Materazzi and Nesta. But it is Fiorentina's Luca Toni -- the 'hot' player in Italian soccer this year - that many are looking to for a big World Cup. When you consider that the forward led team Italy with four goals scored at key moments in the qualifiers, it is easy to understand why the Italians are looking to go deep into the tournament.
However, the real strength for the Italian side won't even take the field. That person is Team Italy's manager, Marcello Lippi, who takes over for Giovanni Trapattoni. Lippi has made an immediate impact as he has been able to successfully insert new blood into an old team with fresh and exciting players like Toni, Alberto Gilardino, Daniele De Rossi, and Aimo Diana, as well as produce wins on a regular basis.
Weaknesses: Can bitter memories of missed shots, hit crossbars and bad penalties be considered a weakness? Is having too many good players a bad thing? These are just a few of the mental anguishes that Lippi will need to deal with if Italy is to compete on a high level in Germany this summer. There are so many options and combinations for Lippi that he will need to find the right combo in his front line to keep all the shooting stars happy.
Meanwhile, Italy did win its qualifying World Cup group, but the Italians played against a weak lineup of teams and they did a competent but not brilliant job in winning. However, the most glaring weakness for the Italian side is their penchant for losing on the world stage when they need wins the most. Whether Italy has purged the demons that have chased them for almost a quarter-century is unclear at this point, but they will need to help themselves by avoiding penalties like the red card Francesco Totti got in extra-time against South Korea in 2002.
Italy World Cup 2006 Outlook: Despite the past three World Cups that led to massive disappointment for Italy, this year has already began better than it has in the past with their rout over 2006 World Cup host country Germany. With that win, many observers are saying that this could be one of the most dangerous teams in the Cup. But are we to believe in the Italian team that demolished Germany 4-1 in the Florence Fiasco at Fianchi on March 1 or the team that loses on penalties and can't preserve leads in the final minutes of games in the World Cup?
If their friendly against Germany is an indication of how the Italians will play in FIFA World Cup Germany, this team is capable of going all the way. Undoubtedly, even with a hobbled Francesco Totti, who is out for the next several months due to a broken ankle, Italy has the talent and depth to go deep and possibly win it all in Germany in June. With their wealth of strikers and trademark stingy defense, the Italians could well be the hungriest team in their group, if not the tournament.
The Italians have played well as a team in the friendlies leading up to World Cup. The key to hoisting the Cup for the first time in 24 years for manager Marcello Lippi's squad is to come out strong and get an early lead and let their defense do the rest. If this happens we should expect the Italians to continue to play the unfriendly role of World Cup spoiler.
Italy World Cup 2006 First Round Match Schedule (all times local):
Mon 12 June 21:00 Group E1 Italy v Group E2 Ghana at Hanover
Sat 17 June 21:00 Group E1 Italy vs. Group E3 USA at Kaiserslautern
Thu 22 June 16:00 Group E4 Czech Republic vs. Group E1 Italy at Hamburg
Updated Italy World Cup 2006 News:
Italian Soccer in Disarray
by Trevor Whenham - 05/18/2006
Every time that you look at baseball and think that the steroid problems, the contract squabbles and everything else that has plagued the game for the last ten years is bad, you just have to look at Italian soccer and you will feel a whole lot better. Italy's top domestic league, Serie A, has been rocked by a wave of scandals, each of which is more unbelievable than the one before it.
Read more about Italian Soccer Problems.