FIFA World Cup 2010: Will Italy Retain their Title?

Italy could not have gotten off to a worse start in the World Cup.

Down 1-0 to Paraguay early the reigning champion looked like a shell of its former self.

Then, perhaps the best keeper in the country, Gianluigi Buffon, gets hurt.

It fit perfectly into the criticism the Azzurri had faced entering the tournament.

They’re too old, not fast enough, and have too many injuries to make it far, right?

A lot has changed since they played a perfect World Cup in 2006 and were crowned world champions.

Entering the tournament, the question marks kept stacking up. Punctuated with a lackluster showing in the qualifying rounds, many thought the Italians were ripe for an early elimination.

Italy has a lot stacked against them, but sometimes that’s all that is needed to wake a sleeping giant.

After a corner kick helped set up the tying goal versus Paraguay, a bit of swagger crept back into the Italian mind-frame. Paraguay’s goalie Justo Villar had made a mistake and suddenly Italy was back. They were pressuring the opposing defense and finally looked like a winning team.

And the goal showed that the Azzurri won’t need a perfect tournament this year, just a bit of luck.

The luck started early by drawing the weakest of all groups: Group G. In their group no other team is ranked within the FIFA Top 30.

With only the top two nations advancing, Italy finds itself in a tune up situation. With the injuries and question marks, the first three games will be used to see what works. It’s known the Italians have a regimented and solid defensive system. If they execute their scheme that’s half the battle.

When they do advance out of the round, they’ll play members of Group E.  Netherlands would no doubt be a tough out, but with Japan’s upset win over Cameroon early, they may be able to delay a game against the Dutch.

The World Cup isn’t a sprint, it’s a systematic marathon over a month. And even though aging players litter the roster, their bodies have enough time to recover in between games.

And let’s not forget, amidst the aging and young players are plenty of sprinkles of greatness on the 23 man roster.

Led by veteran captain and defender, Fabio Cannavarro,  this squad has seen it all. He’s 36 years old and playing in his final World Cup. He is known as a calming force when things get rough and orchestrates the Italian defense. If he can give one last elite burst, it would be much appreciated by Italian fans.

In addition, Gianluca Zambrotta also helps anchor the defense. He uses his knowledge of the game and ability to see the field to help take on opponents. Zambrotta is their most important defender and he knows it. This is a tournament for him to step up.

As for the offense, missing Andrea Pirlo will be big. He is their savviest offensive player and creates in ways many others don’t. It will take away from some of their chances, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have other great players.

Daniele De Rossi is looking for redemption after embarrassing himself in the 2006 World Cup when he elbowed the USA’s Brian Mcbride. He has young legs, previous tournament experience, and knows how to set himself and teammates up for goals.

Giorgio Chiellini, a young center back that will have to start the attack for the Italians. He extremely gifted and knows the field well. His leadership should resonate to the other young players and help spark some of the veterans.

One more offensive player to watch is Riccardo Montolivo .  Seen as the possible replacement for Pirlo’s, he understands his role and what is needed. With great players surrounding him and knowing they need added creativity he has a good chance to become an Italian favorite.

Of course, Buffon, one of the best keepers in the world attempts to hold off opposing teams. Even though he left with a hamstring injury in the Paraguay game, he is still a premier talent. He may be aging, but he knows where to be and has great instincts.

Frederico Marchetti replaced Buffon in the second half. Marchetti is an extremely talented goalkeeper and may be the future for Italy. If the future has to come now, don’t believe that the Italians have no shot. He has experience, solid reflexes and great guidance to help him succeed.

The team has the talent, experience, and brains to go far.

The Azzurri may not repeat, but don’t expect them to go down easy.

Their first game may have ended in a 1-1 tie, but the way they played the last 30 minutes may be a warning sign to future opponents.

Italy may look vulnerable, but it is not going down without a fight.