Head start

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:22 AM ET

It's inevitable a reigning World Cup champion would be the favoured team entering any tournament.

Even if the tournament it is entering is packed with any number of teams that are just as strong.

But when Euro '08 kicks off June 7 in Austria and Switzerland, Italy will be installed as the favourite to pair up its 2006 World Cup win with the 2008 European title.

"Why not?" former Canadian international soccer star Jason deVos said. "Italy is hard to beat. They are very well organized. They have the potential to score goals. They are a very well-rounded team."

"They should be favourites," said Alf De Blasis, promotions and production manager at Telelatino in Toronto who covers the Italian Serie A. He has as good a working knowledge of Italian players as anyone. "When you think that just about every player who played on the World Cup winner is back, they'll be very strong."

The only one everyone knows will be missing is attacking midfielder Francesco Totti. Totti had knee surgery and won't be healthy enough to return. In other years, that loss might have been devastating but, as most soccer observers know, this Italian team has an embarrassment of riches at just about every position.

"Two years ago, going into the World Cup there were some question marks in terms of whether certain players could take on the roles (then coach) Marcello Lippi had in mind," De Blasis said. "Totti was just coming off a serious ankle injury."

As it turned out, Totti played only a minor role in Italy's World Cup win.

For the players who might not all be at the top of their game, the Italians have enough talent to fill in for those players who may not be playing as well as they normally do.

Coach Roberto Donadoni had some tough decisions to make especially in the attacking positions because of the renaissance of older players such as Alex Del Piero and Pippo Inzaghi. He opted for Del Piero for a number of reasons.

With Luca Toni as the target man, Donadoni doesn't play a traditional 4-4-2 formation with two strikers. He likes a 4-3-3 with wingers providing Toni with crosses and attacking from the side. The type of general's role Totti would have played is not as prominent in Donadoni's scheme of things.

One can talk about schemes forever, but if a team doesn't have talent, it won't win.

"The Italians have so much talent," deVos said. "I've always admired the Italians the way they play the game. Not because it's pretty. Not because it's flashy, but it's efficient. They are so good at organizing their teams to stop the other team from playing. They do it better than anyone."

Defence always has been an Italian strong point. Gigi Buffon remains one of the world's top goaltenders.

While captain Fabio Cannavaro is not as young as he used to be, his years of experience in pressure games will be the key to the Italians at the back, assuming he's healthy. Marco Materazzi came off the bench in the 2006 World Cup to play a prominent role. He is now a starter and his strength in the air will give opposing teams trouble on corner and dead-ball plays.

Donadoni is keeping his fingers crossed that Del Piero's rebirth continues. Del Piero, 33, led Serie A in scoring this year.

Toni was the top scorer in the German Bundesliga this year.

"His stock has risen," De Blasis said of Del Piero. "He was essentially written off at the end of qualifying. He is now the x-factor."

Del Piero can provide 60 solid minutes as a starter. Or he can elevate the tempo of the last 30 minutes of a game. He can play an attacking midfielder's role or come off the wing.

But it isn't just about the veterans. The Italians have a crop of young players who are as talented as any set of young players in the world.

The three who likely will turn heads are midfielder Alberto Aquilani and strikers Fabio Quagliarella and Marco Borriello. In a difficult tournament such as the European Championship, an infusion of fresh legs often makes the difference.

The Italians are still hungry and many of their players are in their prime.

The one big problem the Italians may have is their habit of starting most major events slowly. In Euro qualifying, they tied and lost their first two games yet they came back to win their group.

The Italians are in the tournament's toughest group with France, the Netherlands and Romania. If they start slowly, they'll be booking an early trip home.

If they bring their top game, they should add the Euro '08 to their World Cup title.


Photos