CAPE TOWN, June 13 – Champions Italy insist they have the right mix of youth and experience to successfully defend the World Cup, but there are lingering concerns ahead of a tough opener against Paraguay on Monday.Marcello Lippi’s ageing team kick-off a Group F here they should top, with Slovakia and minnows New Zealand their other hurdles.
Paraguay shape as their hardest test, but their preparations have been far from ideal with a defeat to Mexico and a draw with the Swiss, which has seen them come under pressure from the Italian media.
In a better display, they beat local team the Guateng All Stars 6-0 in a practice match on Friday with Lippi giving his clearest indication yet of what his starting XI and formation will be.
He played what seemed to be his top side for one hour in a 4-3-3 system.
The defence comprised Gianluca Zambrotta and Domenico Criscito flanking captain Fabio Cannavaro and Giorgio Chiellini in the centre ahead of Gianluigi Buffon.
With Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi rested with injuries, Gennaro Gattuso joined Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio in midfield with Vincenzo Iaquinta and Simone Pepe either side of Alberto Gilardino up front.
The ice-cool Lippi, who delivered a fourth world championship to the country in 2006, is unconcerned about their form, or worries that the squad is too old.
"We’ve got old players but age doesn’t mean broken down, it means experience, charisma," he said.
"We’re used to matches at a high level, we have the right mix with our young players."
Captain Cannavaro, who will retire after the tournament, admitted the defence needed to be at its best to keep out Paraguay.
"Defence is vital, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stay in our own half of the pitch," said the 36-year-old, who is coming off a poor season at Juventus.
"It means being compact. We’ll never play an attacking game like Brazil, Portugal or Spain but they’ll never be able to defend like us."
There are two ways of looking at Italy.
The first is that which Lippi is focussing on — that they are the holders, have bags of experience throughout the team and a history and a culture of winning.
The other, though, is that they are in crisis with no stars, a squad made up mostly of players unknown outside Italy and a team that is usually less than convincing on the pitch.
Paraguay, on the other hand, are in great shape having beaten Brazil and Argentina in qualifying.
They can no longer be considered minnows having reached their fourth straight finals, with much of the credit given to Argentinian coach Gerardo Martino who has managed to negotiate a delicate transition phase for his team.
He has taken a new generation of players under his wing, notably Nelson Haedo Valdez of Borussia Dortmund, Roque Santa Cruz of Manchester City and Oscar Cardozo of Benfica in attack.
Their tight and effective defensive unit is marshalled by goalkeeper Justo Villar.
Martino is confident his front line can deliver the goals to beat Italy.
"Now there is so much variety in the attack of Paraguay, who have never had this amount," he told reporters.
"In the past it has been attacking, but not like now – alongside Haedo (Valdez) and Santa Cruz there is Oscar Cardozo and Lucas Barrios.
"This is a team that is more complete than Paraguay teams of the past. Hopefully we can make it the best World Cup for Paraguay."
KEY TO MATCH
Roque Santa Cruz (PAR) v Gianluca Zambrotta (ITA)
If Paraguay are to beat Italy then Santa Cruz needs to be at his lethal best. His talent for scoring goals and causing problems for the opposing defence has never been in doubt and Zambrotta will need to use all his wily experience to shut him out.
Zambrotta, now 33, has lost a yard or so of pace but his positioning, technique and smart footballing brain continue to see him get the better of some of the world’s top players.