IRELAND’S new Assistant Manager, Marco Tardelli, was in Berne on Monday night, working as an analyst for the Italian television network RAI.
His contract with the station, signed three years ago, expires at the end of this month — or, rather more pertinently, for as long as Italy stay in Euro 2008.
And that is now a matter for some doubt after their collapse against Holland, a game which left the watching Tardelli as shell-shocked as any of the tifosi inside the stadium and the millions preparing the rotten tomatoes back home. Not since they lost 4-1 to Brazil in that memorable World Cup final of 1970 in Mexico, have the Azzurri been on the end of such a comprehensive mauling in the finals of a major competition.
“It was not a good display and there are many problems in the team — in the defence, in midfield and in attack,” Tardelli yesterday told Irish journalists who are in Switzerland covering Euro 2008. “There are two sources for this — psychological and physical. I don’t think this team is mentally strong enough at present. There is not the right amount of determination and strength to win games. It was a surprise performance by Italy but in the end not a surprise result because of the way that Italy played and also due to Holland’s fine play.”
Tardelli, a scorer in the World Cup final when Italy lifted the trophy in 1982, believes that his homeland’s current squad has not aged well since repeating the feat in Germany two years ago.
“Something has changed at the core of the squad since 2006,” he said. “Before the World Cup in Germany there were problems in the squad but the players, management and federation all worked together to sort it out. That was one of the reasons why Italy lifted the Cup in Berlin. Now, I think this is an old side that needs younger players to come into it. I also believe there is not enough motivation in the current team.”
Not surprisingly, Tardelli pinpoints the absence through injury of inspirational captain and centre-half, Fabio Cannavaro, as a significant problem for the under-fire Italians.
“It has been a major blow to Italy for Fabio is the natural leader of the defence and the team,” said Tardelli. “He is the player whom the others look to for leadership. Fabio is also a very clever and uses his mind when he is on the pitch to great effect. Everybody respects him, his strength and the fact that he is a team player.
“Marco Materazzi was not fit going into this tournament after picking up an injury near the end of the Italian season. But with Cannavaro injured, Roberto Donadoni has had no alternative but to use him. But I don’t believe he is ready to play at the moment so it is a dilemma for Italy.”
However, Tardelli believes that Italy’s problems are not confined to a porous defence.
“Luca Toni is a fantastic forward and a real danger to opponents but he was not in top form against the Dutch,” he said. “However, he received very little support from Antonio Di Natele and Mauro Camoranesi and the ball seldom reached him. Without the ball, no forward can do well. I feel that Donadoni must think about changing these two players for the next match and I would love to see Alessandro del Piero in the attack. Del Piero is an older player but he still has ability and class. We saw that when he came on as a substitute against the Dutch. Certainly, I think he should be in the team ahead of Camoranesi.”
So no punches being pulled by the coach-pundit — who, despite the setback, still thinks qualification will come down to “a shoot-out between France and Italy” — although he was a tad more professionally circumspect when it came to assessing the implications of Italy’s unimpressive opener for Ireland’s World Cup campaign.
“I don’t know if we can beat Italy but we will try,” he smiled. “As Giovanni Trapattoni has said, what is important is preparing Ireland well for the World Cup qualifiers. We must have a team that is playing in a controlled manner and is well-balanced. That is our aim.”
While Tardelli took himself back to his home in Como, from where he will continue to commute to Switzerland for RAI, the small Irish press pack, scattered between Zurich, Berne and Vienna converged by means of road and rail on Innsbruck, for Spain’s clash with Russia.
A more dramatic setting for a football match would be harder to imagine, the Stadion Tivoli Neu almost encircled by the towering, snow-streaked Alps. On the way from Zurich, we’d rolled through picture-postcard Alpine scenery in the blazing sunshine but by the time we reached Innsbruck, the clouds had gathered ominously and soon the scene was positively Wagnerian, with lightning flashing in the blackening sky and thunderclaps reverberating off the mountains. But the real pyrotechnics were reserved for the pitch where even that other electric weather phenomenon, El Nino, was overshadowed by his striker partner, David Villa, who grabbed the tournament’s first hat-trick as Spain saw off Russia by four goals to one.
For once, Guus Hiddink’s big tournament magic deserted him, and even when a late Roman Pavlyuchenko header took the bare look off the scoreboard for the Russians, Spain immediately replied again with a late, late goal from Cesc Fabregas who’d come on as a sub for Torres.
Looking on approvingly from the stand, where he was working for French television, was Fabregas’ club manager Arsene Wenger. Like his fellow pundit, Tardelli, the Arsenal manager can’t have been impressed with his own home country’s halting start to Euro ‘98 as they sleepwalked through a scoreless draw with Romania on Monday. But, between the thunder and the goal deluge in Innsbruck yesterday, at least this time he’d picked a game with infinitely more bang for one’s buck.
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