Italy

Road to the finals

After their glorious victory in the 2006 World Cup, the Italians reached the end of a long and often torturous cycle. The triumphant coach, Marcello Lippi, chose to take time out of football and new coach Roberto Donadoni was given the hardest act to follow.

The stand-out side along with the French in a group containing Scotland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Georgia and the Faroe Islands, qualification appeared a foregone conclusion. However, although eventually the World Cup champions booked their flights to the finals, it was not without a few bumps and bruises on the way.

The campaign started shakily, as the World Cup cobwebs hung around longer than expected. Faced with lowly Lithuania in the Stadio San Paolo in Naples, the Italians remarkably found themselves a goal down in the first-half, and required Pippo Inzaghi to rescue them and secure a point. This poor start was then made worse when the French exacted a measure of revenge for the World Cup final by thumping their one-time conquerors 3-1 in the Stade du France.

Things improved somewhat in the next game against the Ukraine in Rome, with Massimo Oddo and Luca Toni securing a comfortable victory, and everything seemed rosy after the 3-1 defeat of Georgia in Tbilisi. The run continued against the Scottish in Bari, with Luca Toni proving their nemesis in a 2-0 victory. Although a 2-1 winning scoreline against the long-suffering Faroe Islands side was evidence that all was not running entirely smoothly in the Italian ranks, the march towards Austria and Switzerland seemed irresistible. Further defeats of the Georgians and, more impressively, the Scottish in Glasgow secured their place in the finals.

All that remained was winning the group and the Italians duly provided the cherry on top of the cake when, in the Stadio Alberto Braglia in Modena, they again dispatched the Faroe Islands, this time by a 3-1 scoreline. The ultimate irony was that, in defeating the Scottish, they ensured France qualified as well. Now both sides, along with the Netherlands, can enjoy each other’s company yet again, forming a true group of death.

Manager

There are few jobs in world football with more pressure attached than coaching the Azzurri but, when your predecessor has just won the World Cup, you know it’s going to be tricky to prove your worth. However, Roberto Donadoni has done a pretty good job thus far in handling expectations, as he did throughout his career as a professional.

Born in Cisano Bergamasco in the very north of Italy on September 9th 1963, Donadoni made his debut in Italian football while still a teenager with Atalanta. The midfielder made quite the impression with the Bergamo club and attracted the attentions of Italian giants AC Milan, who signed him in 1986. For the next ten years, Donadoni enjoyed trophy after trophy, picking up winners medals in Serie A five times and the European Cup three times. Moreover, he became a crucial member of the Italian national squad, winning 63 caps.

Eventually departing from Milan in 1996, Donadoni became heavily involved with Major League Soccer during its inception and represented the MetroStars. His time in America ended after two years and he moved back to Milan for a few seasons before retiring in 2000 after a period in Saudi Arabia.

His managerial career started soon after in 2001, as he took over at Lecco in the lower divisions. Thus began a rather itinerant spell, as Donadoni moved from Lecco to Livorno to Genoa and back to Livorno within just four years. Resigning from Livorno for a second time following a promising league campaign, he was selected as the Azzurri boss soon after. Despite some heavy criticism from the press since the start of his tenure, Donadoni has nevertheless done all that could be asked up until now. However, Euro 2008 represents uncharted territory for Donadoni the manager.

Three to watch

Andrea Pirlo

The creative heart of the Azzurri, the AC Milan midfielder is one of the finest in Europe on his day. Although he began his career as an orthodox attacking midfielder, his move to AC Milan from their city rivals signalled a shift in ethos for the man from Lombardy.

Placed by Carlo Ancelotti in a deep-lying role in front of the defence and acting as a playmaker, he proved a real attribute both to AC Milan and the national side with his outstanding passing. Pirlo also represents a potent threat from set-pieces both delivering for teammates and going for goal. Although he is yet to really shine on the big stage, as he reaches the end of his 20s, Euro 2008 could see him make a real impact at last.

Fabio Quagliarella

Having made his way into the national side in 2007, Quagliarella is one of the bright young stars of Italian football. The Udinese man has been catching the eye of sides like Manchester United and Arsenal with his performances up front while on loan with Sampdoria, and notched his debut goal for the Azzurri against Lithuania in the qualifiers. This coincided with his first start for Donadoni and points to his immense potential, which may just be realised in part during Euro 2008.

Alessandro Del Piero

One of the foremost names in Italian and European football during the 1990s, Del Piero, like Roberto Baggio before him, has enjoyed a resurgence throughout the 2007/2008 season which has pushed him back into contention for a role in Euro 2008.

His time at Juventus is that of a club legend, having joined in 1993 from Padova and established himself as the all-time top scorer for the club. Del Piero’s list of honours is practically complete, with victories in the Champions League in 1996 and, of course, the World Cup in 2008, but the European Championship trophy has eluded him. Having been surprisingly left in the wilderness during most of Donadoni’s reign, Del Piero’s form this season was simply too good to ignore, as he became one of the contenders for the capocannoniere (top scorer) trophy. Now firmly back in the frame for the Azzurri, could Euro 2008 be his final hurrah?

Win or lose?

Italy’s position in the group of death makes their chances slightly less promising, but 888 Sport and William nevertheless place them at 7/1 to win the competition. Ladbrokes are a little more confident, and quote them at 6/1.