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There will be a familiar feel to the Italy side that lines up for the start of the defence of their FIFA World Cup crown against Paraguay on 14 June.
Coach Marcello Lippi has stuck largely with the players that lifted the trophy in Berlin four years ago, and while critics might bemoan a scarcity of new faces, one of the old guard, Daniele De Rossi believes the Azzurri have one critical element on their side. "
The strength of this team is its team spirit," he told UEFA.com. "We are a great group which has a vision."
Lippi has turned a deaf ear to calls for the likes of Mario Balotelli or Antonio Cassano to join Italy's quest for a fifth world title. Since winning in Germany, Alessandro Nesta and Francesco Totti have retired from international football while Fabio Grosso did not make the cut this time round, making room for newcomers such as Leonardo Bonucci.
The key figures from Germany are still there though – captain Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and, of course, De Rossi. "The basis is still there, a lot of players are still in the team, but of course new young talented players have joined the team as well," said the AS Roma midfielder.
De Rossi was a youngster himself when he travelled to Germany four years ago. Now still just 26 he comes into the tournament with 53 caps to his name and a terrific season at Roma under his belt, providing the driving force behind his side's exhilarating, if ultimately unsuccessful, push for the Scudetto and scoring a career high 11 goals in all competitions.
De Rossi will play his usual role just in front of the defensive line in South Africa, but the Azzurri will not be predictable if Lippi has his way. In the build-up to the tournament he has eschewed friendly matches in preference for training sessions and has experimented with tactics. In particular he has tried out the 4-2-3-1 system that was so successful for FC Internazionale Milano this season and a 4-3-1-2 formation with Claudio Marchisio in a new role.
The Juventus player has prospered behind two strikers and could be Italy's surprise package in South Africa. "I like him there because he's the midfielder who moves and runs the most without the ball, and he's good at creating spaces up front," Lippi explained.
Since 1930 only two teams have successfully defended the World Cup: Italy, who won back-to-back titles in 1934 and 1938, and Brazil in 1958 and 1962. "It's a lot more difficult to defend a prestigious title like the World Cup than to win it first time," De Rossi said. "We had a great tournament and we want to repeat it, but it won't be easy."
De Rossi showed his strength of character by scoring a penalty in the shoot-out victory against France in the 2006 final. "I think it's one of the biggest moments in football, and the heaviest one regarding pressure. Taking a penalty in a World Cup final happens maybe once in a lifetime and to score it and to win the World Cup is fantastic."
The pressure has been building on Italy again. A friendly defeat by Mexico and a draw with Switzerland ahead of the tournament, coupled with a calf injury to Pirlo – Riccardo Montolivo is expected to deputise against Paraguay – has raised questions over the Azzurri's form at a crucial time. But both the 1982 and 2006 World Cup-winning sides hit their peak when it mattered most after difficult training camps, and Lippi is confident the class of 2010 will follow suit.
Italy's future will be in Cesare Prandelli's hands after the finals, and Lippi is determined to end his second spell as Azzurri coach in style. The former Juventus coach stepped down after leading Italy to the World Cup in Germany, and he hopes to do the same again now. "We're not going to South Africa just to take part in the tournament," said the coach. "
Italy go there to win. Remember: never say never."
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