ROME, June 3 – One of the most intriguing elements of Italy's World Cup defence, in both senses of the word, will be the form and influence of Fabio Cannavaro.The 36-year-old Juventus defender lifted the trophy four years ago as the Italy captain in a dream season in which he was later named world player of the year and also moved to Real Madrid.
Cannavaro, then 32, was on top of the world and was showered with plaudits from all quarters.
However, four years is a very long time in football and now both Italy and Cannavaro find themselves in a precarious situation.
Having been an automatic first choice in the team for many years now, Cannavaro’s position has become something of an conundrum.
He has become what Francesco Totti is to AS Roma or what Paul Gascoigne became towards the end of his England career: a problem.
Behind the Juve star there are very few Italian centre-backs presenting an unequivocal case for inclusion alongside Georgio Chiellini, Cannavaro’s centre-half partner for club and country.
It means that no-one has yet convinced coach Marcello Lippi that the veteran’s time is up, so the wily coach, the man who guided Italy to their world title four years agao before quitting and then reclaiming the reins after a two-year hiatus, remains faithful to his captain.
But the general feeling in Italy is that Cannavaro has lost it and there’s nothing like the prospect of playing up to seven matches in a month to expose any such weaknesses.
Football, and indeed picking teams, is obviously an inexact science but one thing that cannot be denied is that Cannavaro is not what he was.
He has just been a part of a Juventus team that lost a club record 15 league matches and conceded a club record 56 goals in a season.
And that despite playing alongside Chiellini, who was probably Juve’s only bright spark all season, and with Italy number one Gianluigi Buffon behind them.
Cannavaro was frequently found wanting in crucial moments and dragged embarrassingly out of position all too frequently for comfort.
Crucially it was in the biggest games that he and his team-mates failed in the most spectcular manner.
They twice lost 3-0 to AC Milan last season and were thumped 4-1 at home to Bayern Munich in the Champions League group stages to be dumped out of the competition.
When Juve needed their Italy captain the most, he was powerless to plug the holes in their backline.
In the last game of the season, at the San Siro against Milan, Cannavaro was at fault for the first goal as he charged out of position to close down Milan left-back Luca Antonini only to then be beaten for pace by the same player who ran into a gaping hole to go on and score past Buffon.
Cannavaro was also out of position on Milan’s second goal and missing when Ronladinho wrapped up the victory in the second half.
Such generally poor defending was anathema to Cannavaro four years ago and it is worrying for Italy that they have put their faith in a player who is creaking so obviously.
What’s more, Italy will be relying on their traditional defensive strengths in South Africa as their forward line offers very little to strike fear into their opponents.
But their defence, and in particular Cannavaro, just isn’t that good any more.
June risks presenting Cannavaro with a very inglorious exit from top level football and not one becoming of a former world player of the year.