ITALY made their reservations for the World Cup finals in South Africa last night after a dramatically improved performance against Bulgaria in Turin.
Two first-half goals put Italy in complete control of the game, and they might have scored more, but there were sufficient lapses in defence to provide some encouragement for Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland side ahead of the game in Dublin – and Fabio Cannavaro’s second-half booking means the Italy captain will miss the game.
Italy coach Marcello Lippi picked a side to please the local crowd – there were seven Juventus players in the starting line-up – and confounded pre-match speculation by retaining Andrea Pirlo in the playmaker role, with Daniele de Rossi returning in midfield after suspension.
With the crowd behind the team and Italy’s midfield moving the ball quickly forward and releasing both Zambrotta and Grosso down the flanks, Bulgaria were immediately struggling, and it came as no surprise when, in the 11th minute, Pirlo lifted a superb chip over the defence and Grosso burst through to smash the ball into the roof of the Bulgaria net.
The Juventus core to the side provided much more coherence and intensity than in previous games and with Italy’s pressing game produced a stream of errors from Bulgaria the home side could easily have been 3-0 up before the half hour.
First, Zambrotta raced in from the right and angled a great ball back inside but Iaquinta scuffed his shot with the keeper stranded.
Then Iaquinta was only just wide with a great headed effort.
In between times, there were signs that Italy might be vulnerable against pace at the back, with Zambrotta failing to cover a run by Berbatov from which the Manchester United striker ought to have done better than finish with a tame shot into Buffon’s arms.
BUFFON also reacted superbly to block a shot from a corner that might have crept inside the near post, but these were isolated threats from the Bulgarians, who were then completely undone by a swift Italian move. Once again it came down the left side of the penalty area and ended with Iaquinta cutting inside and striking the ball beautifully beyond the keeper.
Almost inevitably, the pace of the game slowed after half-time. Bulgaria tightened up a little in midfield and continued to mount an occasional threat, and the Italians looked more static and square in midfield, which allowed Petrov to set up a couple of chances for the forwards.
But although Berbatov came close on a couple of occasions, Italy always looked to have an extra gear should they need it, and where happy in the end to settle for a 2-0 scoreline.
“We controlled the game from the start,” said a satisfied Lippi afterwards. “I’m especially pleased because we know that some of the players are still not quite at their best at this stage of the season.”
“At last tonight we saw again an Italy worthy of being called world champions,” was the verdict of veteran coach Renzo Ulivieri. “It was the Italy we all wanted to see, good football, secure, and with the ball played to feet.”
Watching from the stands, Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli will have noted the high tempo of Italy’s play in the first half, as well as their strength on both flanks.
“Italy have played very well,” said Tardelli. “The Juventus players are in great form, particularly Iaquinta. But our job is not to worry about Italy but to concentrate on doing the best we can, and ensuring that we achieve that second place.”
ITALY: Buffon, Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Grosso, Camoranesi, De Rossi, Marchisio (Pepe 73), Pirlo, Gilardino (Rossi 58), Iaquinta (D’Agostino 83).
BULGARIA: Ivankov, Manolev, Iliyan Stoyanov, Angelov, Kishishev, Sarmov (Georgiev 63), Yankov (Domovchiyski 72), Stiliyan Petrov, Martin Petrov (Bojinov 62), Berbatov, Rangelov.
Referee: Florian Meyer (Germany).
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