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Loyal veterans spearheading Italy's Euro 2012 campaign
Published : 23 Jun 2012 11:48:21
Cesare Prandelli may have ushered in a new era when he took over as Italy coach two years ago but it is his veterans who will provide the key to the Azzurri's hopes of beating England on Sunday.
Prandelli's men tackle Roy Hodgson's team in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals here with Germany awaiting in a semi-final in Warsaw on Thursday.
And while much of Prandelli's team is based around the incisive midfield breaks from Claudio Marchisio or the enigmatic brilliance of Mario Balotelli, not to mention mature performers such as Giorgio Chiellini or Antonio Cassano, it is the veterans who provide the backbone to this team.
Four players remain from the Italy squad that won the World Cup under Marcello Lippi in 2006 and if anything they are even more fundamental now than they were then.
Back then, Gianluigi Buffon had inherited the mantle as best goalkeeper in the world from German Oliver Kahn and is now the team captain.
Italy suffered a disastrous World Cup defence two years ago when they exited the group stages without a single victory - the first time the defending champions bowed out so early - but Buffon had missed all but the first 45 minutes of action due to a back problem.
Without his commanding presence, Italy lost their final group match 3-2 to unheralded Slovakia and were sent packing.
But now he is fully recovered and back to his best, adding a wise old head at 34. He is more than just the team captain, he is also a reference for the rest of the squad.
Just as he was back in 2006 Andrea Pirlo is the playmaker of this team, the orchestrator who sits deep in midfield and pulls the strings of those around him.
He is the one who unlocks opposition defences, spraying passes around the field and clipping balls over the top for runners from midfield to latch onto.
His was the sublime pass that picked out Antonio Di Natale to score the opening goal against Spain in their first group game.
What is all the more remarkable about the 33-year-old is that a year ago AC Milan let him go on a free transfer after 10 years service because they thought he was only worth a one-year extension while the player wanted three more years.
Juventus snapped him up and Pirlo was the undoubted star of the show as they romped to the Serie A title without losing a game.
The third member of the quartet is Roma's Daniele De Rossi who came on as a substitute in the final victory over France in Berlin, replacing club team-mate Francesco Totti.
His was not a happy World Cup experience as he started the tournament in the first XI but was sent off in the second match for elbowing USA's Brian McBride.
His subsequent four-game ban ruled him out until the final and cost him a starting berth in that, but even McBride described him as classy for seeking out the forward to apologise after the game.
De Rossi is a complete midfielder and his importance was underlined by Prandelli's decision to play him as a libero in a back three in the first two group games here.
What these three players have in common is a great sense of loyalty.
Although De Rossi is the only one-team player amongst them, having been born and raised in Rome and played all his life for Roma, Buffon has only played for two sides and spent the last 11 years at Juve - he showed his loyalty by staying when they were relegated in 2006 because of a matchfixing scandal.
Pirlo spent a decade and the better part of his career at Milan.
This sort of loyalty is one of the major reasons they have managed to last so long and remained so important both to their clubs and the national team.
The final member of the fanatastic four is Andrea Barzagli, a late developper who has become a fixture in the Italy team only since joining Juve 18 months ago.
A member of the 2006 squad he only played in a couple of matches and spent three years away from the international set-up after Euro 2008.
But Barzagli has come of age since he reached his 30s and although his career has been perhaps more typical of modern players, taking in eight different clubs, he is so important that he was thrust straight back into the starting line-up against Ireland even though he had only just recovered from injury.