Gnashing of Italian teeth

MORRIS DALLA COSTA

, Last Updated: 7:09 AM ET

LONDON -- It wouldn't be a major tournament without Italians going through major psychological trauma involving their national team.

Euro '08 will be no different.

Italy will likely enter the tournament as favourites. It has little to do with how well they are playing or the kind of team they are likely to field. Most of it is the residual from winning the 2006 World Cup.

Only two years removed from their World Cup championship, Italy must be the favourite. World champions don't wind up in the dumper so quickly.

DUMPER

The Italians haven't gone into the dumper but their place as tournament favourites will certainly be threatened by any one of four or five other teams.

Winning a World Cup is as much about timing and good fortune as it is about having the best team.

It's easy to forget that one of the Italian World Cup heroes (or villains depending on what side of the ball you favour), Marco Matterazzi, was not even supposed to play in the tournament.

He only appeared in the third game because outstanding defender Alessandro Nesta sustained an injury.

What Matterazzi did is well documented. Not only did he score a key goal in the final but he also enticed Zinedine Zidane to lose his mind and earn a red card.

Fabio Grosso, a relative unknown commodity at that time, was one of the better players in the tournament.

Italy managed to avoid elimination by getting a late penalty against Australia, a game many believed they didn't deserve to win.

In the 2006 World Cup, Italy did not have the best team but everything fell into place.

Timing and good fortune.

There is less than two months before Euro '08. Italy is in a group with the Netherlands, Romania and France, by far the most difficult of the tournament.

Timing and good fortune may not be as gentle to the Italians this time around.

They'll be heading to Euro with the fate of manager Roberto Donadoni hanging in the balance.

Donadoni has more than hinted at wanting a new contract but no one from the Italian soccer association has indicated there is one in the offing.

Some of the stars of that World Cup win are showing their age or are very much out of form.

Matterazzi, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, even Grosso are either injured or having such poor seasons they will struggle to be selected.

There is a long list of young stars who were supposed to be able to take over but haven't yet panned out. Players Alberto Aquilani, Daniele De Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini and Raffaele Palladino and Fabio Quagliarella were the next best thing. Italy is still waiting.

The soccer world in Italy will be consumed with whether popular but ancient Alex Del Piero should be on the team for Euro. He is having a good season for Juventus but the Italian Serie A is in decline. He may not be able to attain the kind of competitive level that's needed for long periods of time.

But because of his popularity, Donadoni will be pushed to select him.

And Del Piero may be competing with Antonio Cassano for that spot.

DANGEROUS

Cassano is a dangerous selection. An enormous talent, the bad boy of Italian soccer has the temperament of Mount Vesuvius. He became such a pariah in Italy that he had to play in Spain. He's back now. Cassano has served a five-game suspension for reportedly threatening to decapitate a referee.

His nickname is Peter Pan, probably because he lives in Neverland.

When asked if he is second to players such as Cristiano Ronaldo or Kaka, his response was "I am second to no one."

Thanks goodness, he's mellowed.

Welcome to the Italy heading into Euro '08.

If nothing else, they will be interesting.


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