Italy hums under Lippi

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:57 AM ET

Never count the Italians out at the World Cup.

Italy always been in the mix for World Cup glory, having won the global title three times, including the 1934 title at home, and in 1938 and 1982.

The Azzurri have appeared in 15 World Cups, failing to qualifying for the event only once, 1958 in Sweden.

The hero of the 1982 championship was striker Paolo Rossi, who recorded a hat trick against Brazil to put Italy through to the semi-final.

Against Poland, the Italian superstar nailed two more to qualify his side for the final, and in a 3-1 victory over Germany, Rossi continued his offensive magic by scoring his sixth goal of the tournament, winning the Golden Boot as the World Cup's top scorer.

But Italy has a lot to prove next year when the 2006 World Cup begins in Germany.

The side's showing at the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan was forgettable for fans of the Azzurri. After fighting their way into the quarter-final, the Italians faced the host South Koreans and led for most of the game before the Asian side equalized just prior to the final whistle and then won by a Golden Goal in extra time.

The Italians suffered an equally disheartening defeat in Euro 2000. In the final against France, the Italians allowed their opponents to tie the game in the dying minutes before David Trezeguet delivered the killer blow.

Italy suffered even greater humiliation at the 2004 European championship, drawing with Denmark (0-0) and Sweden (1-1) and defeating Bulgaria (2-1) in the first round. Unfortunately, those results were not enough to get them past the group stage.

Giovanni Trapattoni has since been replaced as manager by former Juventus boss Marcello Lippi, and Lippi has the Azzurri on the right track.

Following a 0-0 draw in Oslo against Norway on Saturday, the Italians sit in first place in their World Cup qualifying group with four wins, one draw and one loss, for a total of 13 points, four points ahead of both Norway and Slovenia.

"Lippi is trying to instill a club spirit in the national team," midfielder Andrea Pirlo told FIFAworldcup.com. "He's getting there too, and it feels great to play on a team where all of the players are on the same wavelength."

Winning the World Cup is everything to Italy and their legion of fans, as evident in Lippi's comments when asked last week if his team had a good chance to win it all in Germany next year.

"I hope to God that is a possibility," he said.

"I think most people (outside of Italy) do not realize how much pressure there is and what (the players) have to go through," said Giorgio Chinaglia, a former Italian team great. "The whole country is waiting for you to do something good."

The Azzurri still draws most of its top players from Italy's Serie A league and next year's side at the World Cup will not be an exception.

Against Norway on Saturday, Lippi was without Roma star Francesco Totti, who only returned from a five-match ban last week, Parma striker Alberto Gilardino, who suffered an Achilles heel injury, and Milan defender Alessandro Nesta, one of the best stoppers in the world, who withdrew because of family reasons. Gilardino's spot in the Italian lineup for Norway's game was filled by Udinese's Vincenzo Iaquinta.

For this week's North American tour, which begins against Serbia and Montenegro tomorrow and ends on June 11 in East Rutherford, N.J., against Ecuador, Lippi added three of the leading scorers in Serie A, Cristiano Lucarelli, Luca Toni and David Di Michele.

Lucarelli, a veteran Livorno striker, led the Italian league with 24 goals this season, while Palermo's Toni had 20 and Udinese's Di Michele had 15.

Lippi could not call any players from Inter Milan or AS Roma for the game tomorrow night. Those teams play in the first leg of the Italian Cup on June 15.


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