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Holders' high expectations

Three of the Italian Under-21 team that won the 2000 UEFA European Under-21 Championship will be in Korea/Japan for the FIFA World Cup this summer, but the match winner in the final against the Czech Republic, Andrea Pirlo, will again be a key figure for Italy as they defend their title in Switzerland.

Pivotal Pirlo

Gennaro Gattuso, Cristiano Zanetti and Christian Abbiati have graduated to the senior squad but Pirlo, who scored twice for Italy in that final victory, is back to captain the side. Finally finding first-team football on a regular basis with Milan AC, he is the team’s talisman. But such is the depth of talent at coach Claudio Gentile’s disposal that he has decided to omit AS Roma’s playmaking starlet Antonio Cassano from his provisional 24-man squad.

Tough group

Not surprisingly, the Azzurrini are well fancied to add to their roll of honour at this level after winning four out of the last five editions of the championship. But they will have to do it the hard way, having been drawn with Portugal, England and Switzerland in Group A. That said, their opponents are more likely to fear Italy than vice versa. Their only defeat in ten qualifying matches came against Hungary in their final group game when they had already eased through to the play-offs.

Ace attackers

Even without Cassano and the injured Juventus FC midfielder Enzo Maresca, Gentile has a talented squad. Massimo Maccarone is arguably the most coveted striker in Italy at the moment. He made his senior team debut, winning the match-winning penalty in the process, against England in March, one night after scoring for the U-21s in the same fixture. For good measure, he has also scored ten times in Serie B for Empoli Calcio.

Parma powerhouse

His striker partner is likely to be Emiliano Bonazzoli, the 1.92m Parma AC striker. He scored five times in Serie A this term and struck three times in the qualifying series. Powerfully built, Bonazzoli is especially adept at holding the ball up but is surprisingly nimble on the ground. Both strikers were on target as Italy defeated the United States 2-0, while Maccarone scored in the 1-1 draw with England in March and the 3-2 defeat by France in April.

Key players

Elsewhere, Daniel Bonera’s displays in the Brescia Calcio defence earned him a call-up to the senior squad earlier this year, while Milan AC’s Massimo Donati and the Parma duo of Matteo Ferrari and Marco Marchionni seem certain starters.

Semi-final aim
Coach Gentile, meanwhile, is aware that Italy carry a heavy burden of expectation. "A team like Italy is always condemned to go for victory," he said. "My predecessors were able to do so, and it won't be easy to repeat such successes. We have to do our best, and it will be important to reach the semi-finals."

Can the Azzurrini go all the way for a 5th time? :cool:

I think so :)
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