Football: Baggio's taste for the unexpected can spur Italy

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The Independent Online
ALESSANDRO DEL PIERO is one of the world's special talents and Italy will miss him when they play their opening game against Chile today. Then again, with Del Piero injured, it cannot be too much of a hardship to have somebody of the calibre of Roberto Baggio ready and willing to take over.

As a supporter of England it worries me that Italy have slipped in through the back door - just as I worried when Manchester United could not remove Juventus from the Champions' League last season.

At World Cups Italy always tend to come good. Their squad has immense reserves of class and there will be no group of players in France better prepared. The Italian player is an extremely fit athlete, as we saw in America in 1994 when they twice went down to 10 men and yet still possessed the strength and determination to come through in extra time. It is the quality of the goalscoring that the Italian League consistently throws up which confirms to me that it is still the strongest in Europe, no matter that some will try and argue in favour of our Premiership. To find the net consistently against defensive players who are so adept at neutralising your threat is a very special gift.

With everybody fit Maldini's first-choice attack will be Del Piero alongside Christian Vieri, who is more like a British centre-forward in that he stands six foot-plus and has immense strength. Vieri is quite an oddity in that he is predominantly left-sided. Apart from the great Argentinian Mario Kempes, I am struggling to think of a really outstanding central striker who is happiest when the ball is on his left.

Baggio's inclusion for Del Piero will enable Italy to stick with a tall man-small man combination. It's a shame for Gianfranco Zola that his winning goal in the Cup-Winners' Cup final was not sufficient to earn him a place in the squad, but Baggio's return with Bologna has been very impressive. He has proved himself the top Italian marksman in the Italian League and is a player always capable of producing the unexpected.

It is another indication of the riches on display in Italy every week that the Azzurri's biggest problem this afternoon is likely to come from Marcelo Salas, who is joining Lazio, and Ivan Zamorano, who has shown with Internazionale what a threat he can be. Chile also have talent spread throughout their side, but I expect Italy to launch Group B with a victory.

Having said that, you cannot be over-confident because they are notoriously bad starters in major tournaments. I don't know why that should be but they tend to be quite nervous in the group stages until they find their stride. The longer they stay in the tournament the more threatening they will become, and I do not expect them to make the same mistake as in Euro 96 when they made five changes for the second game to give key players a breather and as a result paid for it by failing to qualify.

For this World Cup Italy experienced a strange qualification and were only able to get in via the play-offs. They struggled to score in three of their last four group games, which is bemusing after all that I have said about the wealth of attacking talent at their disposal. There are goals in the midfield area as well. We have seen just what Roberto Di Matteo is capable of, and Dino Baggio often pops up to score from distance.

Italy did very well when beating England at Wembley, but in the return game in Rome they disappointed. They have since discovered all sorts of excuses for their performance that night, but perhaps we should just congratulate ourselves because Glenn Hoddle's men were pumped up for the occasion and produced a magnificent team display.

Compared with 1994 the Italian squad is much younger and the player that stands out because he is no longer there is Franco Baresi, the best I ever played alongside and that goes for every area of the field. The Milan defender had a massive presence both in the dressing-room and on the pitch and possessed two clever feet. For a central defender he had the touch of a centre-forward.

In his place have come some pretty formidable stoppers in their own right, with Lazio's Alessandro Nesta now talked about as the most outstanding defender in the Italian game. It must be strange for the manager having his own son, Paolo, as his left-back and captain, but because he picks himself by virtue of his all-round excellence it is not the problem it would otherwise have been.