Italy hope Montolivo is the man to fill Pirlo's boots after injury

Riccardo Montolivo faces a stiff challenge at his first World Cup: to replace the outstanding Andrea Pirlo at the heart of Italy's midfield. Pirlo injured his left calf during the friendly defeat to Mexico last week and could now miss the entire group stages.

Montolivo excelled in his position in front of Fiorentina's defence this season, directing the midfield and forwards – exactly what Pirlo has been doing for years with Italy and Milan. "That's the ideal position for me, where I can really take best advantage of my characteristics," Montolivo said yesterday. "I can play in the middle of a three-man midfield as well, but I'm best in front of the defence."

He played well in a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in a warm-up game last weekend and could start Italy's opener with Paraguay on Monday. Daniele de Rossi and Angelo Palombo are also options to replace Pirlo.

"There are two or three players who can replace him and we all have different characteristics," Montolivo added. "The coach will evaluate and make the decision."

Montolivo had a difficult time adapting to the international game at last year's Confederations Cup in South Africa, after which he was dropped by coach Marcello Lippi. "After the Confederations Cup, [Lippi] called me. It was about the same time I changed positions with Fiorentina and he said he would be observing me and I gave my all to get this jersey back," Montolivo said. "I'm really motivated. This could be the most important moment of my career."

Montolivo was at the heart of the action when Fiorentina beat Liverpool twice in the group phase of this season's Champions League, dominating a contest with one of his idols – Steven Gerrard.

"The experience in the Champions League was key," Montolivo said. "It's really important to go up against players at that level and measure yourself against the top clubs."

As one of the younger members of Italy's relatively old team, Montolivo can also look forward to playing under future national team coach Cesare Prandelli, who recently agreed to a four-year deal to replace Lippi after the World Cup. Prandelli coached Fiorentina for the last five years and has a special bond with Montolivo.

It has all been quite a turnaround for a player that risked not making Italy's final 23-man squad little more than a week ago. "I was in doubt, but I knew it and I worked as hard as I could to prove myself," Montolivo said.

Two weeks of training in the Italian Alps has benefited Italy as they prepare for matches at high altitude. Team physician Enrico Castellacci said yesterday that compared with last year's Confederations Cup in South Africa – in which Italy failed to make it past the group phase – players are no longer having trouble catching their breath or sleeping through the night.

Italy have been preparing for the World Cup in Sestriere – at an altitude of 2,035m (6,670ft) – and sluggish performances in friendlies against Mexico and Switzerland last week prompted fears they'd overdone altitude training. "You can't say that there's a Sestriere effect," Castellacci said. "We've adapted to the altitude."

Italy's training base in Irene – near Pretoria – is at about 1,400m (4,600ft). "We've noticed that the players are not having as tough a time recuperating after brief sprints and runs," Castellacci said.