Julian De Martinis is an avid Italy and Roma fan and one of two bloggers who writes for the Italy WorldCupBlog http://italy.worldcupblog.org/
HALF TIME HEROES: What was your first reaction upon hearing that Group H contained your country Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. Pretty easy hey?
Julian De Martinis: Considering the alternative draws that we could’ve had, I was pretty happy. Italy managed to avoid most of the big guns- France wasn’t placed into their group, and both Brazil and Argentina were also avoided. That being said, this group does have quite a bit of quality running through it. Paraguay had a tremendous qualifying campaign, beating both Brazil and Argentina.
Italy fans know how good Marek Hamsik is, so his Slovakia team is no pushover either. But, all in all, about as good as it could’ve been. If any team made it as far as the group stage, it means they are pretty good at the least, so while I don’t think it’s a piece of cake I do think we avoided the Group of death for the first time in at least 2 tournaments.
HTH: What’s been the reaction by the management of the Italians? Does your Coach Marcelo Lippi see any of your group H opponents as a threat?
JDM: Lippi is always a tough character to read. He tends to do what he wants, and given his resume, I personally give him the benefit of the doubt. Many Italy fans think he’s stubborn and over-reliant on age to the detriment of incorporating youth, as the core of this Italy side is the same that won the World Cup four years ago.
Italy are notoriously slow starters at tournaments, and with the first game being against Paraguay- probably the toughest opponent in the group-I don’t think Lippi will under-estimate our opponents.
I think Lippi knows that you really can’t afford to underestimate anyone at the World Cup, so he’ll probably put out his strongest XI from the first game onward.
HTH: The Italians are the current wold champions but your team is getting older. Your strength has always been your defense. Can the heroes of the last World Cup Cannavoro, Buffon, Matterazzi, Totti, Del Piero do the business again? Will they even make the squad?
JDM: Out of those five players, only two are certainties to make the squad- Buffon and captain Cannavaro. Materazzi is all but out of national consideration after the Euro debacle, and Del Piero seems to have been written off by Lippi. Totti is another case, but it depends on whether or not he returns from international retirement- if he does I fully expect a call up.
But either way, the heroes of the last World Cup almost have to be the heroes this time around because so many of the players are the same. Buffon is going to have to repeat his heroics and Pirlo will have to dictate the midfield tempo once again. Luckily, a few stars have broken out since, chief amongst them Giorgio Chiellini. But yes, I think that Lippi will probably stick with the same core so they’ll have to repeat that. Whether or not they can is another question, but Italy is tough to write off. Experience is very important, too.
HTH: Any potential weaknesses that you see in the team?
JDM: Zambrotta and Grosso seem to be Lippi’s first choice wingbacks, but their defending is quite poor and leaves massive gaps at the back. The worst problem may be that we don’t really have a striker to build this team around. Toni and Gila never really cut it, but one of them will probably be a starter –if not both- come this summer. The lack of cutting edge up front is definitely going to be our biggest problem at the World Cup.
HTH: Italy famously knocked out Australia at the last World Cup with a disputed penalty decision. Was it a dive by Grosso? Reflecting back what did you think of the Australian team that day?
JDM: I’ve seen the replay quite a few times and I’m on the fence. Grosso definitely went looking for a penalty but from some angles it’s hard to tell. Without video replay, referee’s decisions have to be accepted and this is just part of the game.
That being said, Italy was down to 10 men for most of the match. Australia weren’t poor by any means but their inability to capitalize on it is what truly cost them that match- not the penalty.
HTH: How do you think your team will adapt to the conditions in South Africa where teams can expect high altitude, differing weather conditions and those ubiquitous Vuvuzelas that will be blasting for the whole game?
JDM: Honestly it will be tough for an aging squad to adapt. On the other hand, some of these players have a ton of experience playing in venues all over the world, so I expect that adapting is second nature to them. Lippi needs to get the team there early enough so their bodies can become used to the conditions, but I don’t really see this being a factor in how the Cup goes. It’s going to affect everyone equally, except the African teams, so it’s not an excuse for a poor performance.
HTH: Are you happy with the Coach and the way the team is playing leading in to the World Cup and is there anything you would change?
JDM: I trust Lippi because his football knowledge is a million times what mine is. I don’t think his tactics are bad at all, but I do think he places far too much trust in aging players. I would give youth a run out, especially in defence. Santon and Motta should get a shout, as well as Balzaretti and Cassani of Palermo. It’s really too late to change the team now and throw on newcomers right in the middle of the world’s biggest competition without any experience.
HTH: Tell us the player in your team that annoys you the most and why?
JDM: On the national team it’s Di Natale. He’s a fantastic club player but he’s shined very few times for the Azzurri and almost never in the games that truly count. I just think he’s too old to be on the team and epitomizes Lippi’s trust in age over youth.
HTH: The player you like the most?
JDM: Has to be Pirlo. He’s the Xavi to the Azzurri, the gears that turn the clock of the midfield. Without him we often look static and lost. Always raises his game when we really need it and his vision is superb. Might be getting on in age but in his position it’s rarely a problem- just don’t ask him to defend.
HTH: Any good young Italian players to watch out for?
JDM: Bucketfuls. Giovinco, De Ceglie, Candreva, Balotelli, Santon, Motta, Pazzini, Rossi, Bonnuci, Ranocchia… if Italy don’t do well this World Cup, the next world cup could be a real chance to win. The entire defence will likely be overhauled and it seems like another golden generation of defenders is just waiting to shine.
HTH: Lastly please give me a prediction on how your team will progress and also who will be the winner and loser of the World Cup?
JDM: I hate these things because I’m superstitious, but I think we have a shot of winning it again. That being said, the final will be someone vs Argentina (yes) with Maradona writing the fairytale of a lifetime.
Interview was first published in March Half Time Heroes