Cannavaro admits Italy lack star quality to deepen holders' sombre mood

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The Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro gave fans of the faltering world champions little reason to be cheerful yesterday. In fact, he gave no reason at all.

"I am very confident – but I don't know why," the 36-year-old told a half- empty news conference at Italy's base here, near Pretoria.

The fact so few press people turned up to see the 2006 World Cup-winning captain in what will be his last major tournament is another indication that few expect the out-of-form Azzurri to make any major impact here.

If fans were not already clear about Italy's problems, Cannavaro kindly listed their deficiencies. "The friendlies weren't as good as four years ago so people are sceptical," he said, dressed in a dark T-shirt that reflected a somewhat sombre mood. "Maybe we don't have a star like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney. We can't play like Brazil, Spain or Portugal."

Coach Marcello Lippi has been trying various formations in training and the players still do not know what system he will use in Monday's Group F opener against Paraguay in Cape Town.

Cannavaro's usual central-defence partner Giorgio Chiellini could switch to left-back in a surprise move while midfielder Angelo Palombo has been training occasionally at centre-back despite having almost no experience in the role.

Again, the captain struggled to sound convincing. "With Giorgio we've played lots of times together but whoever is here has the quality to play there. Palombo is an extreme solution who has never played there but he is a very good midfielder," he said.

"We have an obligation to think positive and look forward. For you it might look like a mess but the coach will have the formation in his head. I don't see anything strange."

The veteran Cannavaro himself is a shadow of the rock-solid centre-back who inspired his side to glory four years ago and won the World Player of the Year award for his efforts. Age has caught up with him and he is now often beaten for pace, while his positional sense has also suffered.

Rather than include his own decline in the catalogue of Italy's troubles, Cannavaro is already looking forward to seeing out the twilight of his career with Dubai's Al Ahli from next month following a torrid last season with faltering Juventus. "Certainly Dubai is a different life, different football, but there's the sea and it's hot," he smiled, adding that Lippi would make a great coach of the UAE team given the 62-year-old has no plans once he leaves his post after the World Cup.

The debutants Slovakia, in Italy's group, were given a lift yesterday when their Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel returned to squad training after an ankle problem. However the midfielder Miroslav Stoch sat out part of the session with a minor knee injury.

Skrtel, the team's star, had been training separately or without the ball this week at their base in central Pretoria to strengthen his ankle before Tuesday's match against New Zealand.

The 20-year-old Stoch, whose move to the Turkish club Fenerbahce from Chelsea was announced on Thursday, should also be fit for that opening game despite hurting his knee. "It is nothing serious," the team spokeswoman, Marianna Cizmarova, said.

Instead of Skrtel, it was midfielder Juraj Kucka who had an individual session, using a half Swiss ball for exercises to help his own ankle problem. He should be fit for Tuesday but is more likely to be on the bench than in the starting line-up.

The Spanish squad, who open their Group H campaign against Switzerland on Wednesday, were welcomed with traditional music and dancing – including a demonstration of gumboot-slapping – when they touched down at their training base in Potchefstroom yesterday.

Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas and their team-mates landed around midday at the military airbase, its runway specially extended for the World Cup, in the leafy university town an hour's drive south-west of Johannesburg. The European champions were transported to their base at North West University along streets lined with thousands of cheering "Potch" locals who waved Spanish flags and blew lustily on multi-coloured vuvuzela horns.

Executive mayor Maphetle Maphetle addressed the slightly frazzled-looking players and coaching staff, who had flown overnight to Johannesburg on Thursday and were dressed in sharp grey suits with red ties.

"We know you are a very good coach," Maphetle told Vicente del Bosque sitting in the front row. "We hope the final will be between Bafana Bafana and Spain," he added.

Despite coming from the land of flamenco, some of the Spanish party looked bemused by the group of leaping teenage boys slapping their black-and- white-striped gumboots, originally used as a kind of sign language by mining workers. They applauded the dancers and musicians politely before heading to their rooms in the new university sports village ... life can seem flat for a while after a season of action in the Bernabeu and the Nou Camp.