Lippi relies on self-belief to lift Italy's chances as the ageing champions arrive

People always write us off, says coach as he defends the prospects of his struggling squad
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The Independent Online

From the mayhem of Sandton – Johannesburg's version of Canary Wharf – where thousands of South African supporters yesterday serenaded Bafana Bafana on an open-top bus parade, to the comparative peace and quiet of Southdowns College, where the World Cup holders Italy will prepare for the defence of their title.

Then, after a gentle session, their first since arriving in the country yesterday morning, on to another college, now christened Casa Azzurri, where the media have set up camp. It is just as well that all South African schools and universities have taken a holiday for the duration of the competition, as so many of their premises seem to have been commandeered by the competing teams.

Marcello Lippi, the winning coach from four years ago, knows better than to make any rash predictions at this stage. He is aware that only two teams have ever retained football's greatest prize: Pele's Brazil of 1958 and 1962, and the Italians themselves in 1934 and 1938. Slow starters or not, they are in a group they should win, even if Paraguay were to force a draw in the opening game next Monday. A quarter-final against Spain is on the cards, although after some disappointing friendly results – Mexico recently beat them 2-1 – some pessimists believe they would not survive a putative second-round game against Cameroon.

The urbane Lippi therefore found himself having to defend the squad in his first press conference of the tournament yesterday. "People always write us off beforehand," he said. "It's a World Cup and everyone wants to have an opinion and they're welcome to it but that doesn't impact on us at all. We'll get it right. Last time we started well against Ghana and played well from then onwards."

The other criticism before the squad was named was that it would be too old, which the coach countered by bringing some newcomers to the party along with nine survivors from 2006, while leaving out other old heroes like Alessandro Nesta and Francesco Totti. One to look out for is 22-year-old Leonardo Bonucci, who made an impressive debut only three months ago in the centre of defence and could win a place there alongside Fabio Cannavaro (now aged 36), with Giorgio Chiellini moving to left-back.

The silver haired Lippi, himself a young 62, insists that age is no barrier to performance at a World Cup. This is the country, after all, that won the trophy in 1982 captained by the 40-year old goalkeeper Dino Zoff. Lippi's argument is that there is a difference between a competition lasting a month and one taking place over a whole season: "We've got a nice mix of young players and good quality and I've never seen a team win the World Cup with 23 new players," Lippi said.

"This is a team built for the World Cup. They were born there four years ago and self-belief came from that result. No great players have been left behind in Italy." Totti and Nesta may beg to differ.

Three players did not train yesterday but only Andrea Pirlo, the deep-lying midfielder, will miss the Paraguay game against opponents Lippi describes as "very quick playing at a very high level for two years in the South American group". Oddly, there are no players among the 23 Azzurri from the new Italian champions Internazionale. Instead there will a spine to the team supplied by Juventus and backed up by Milan, with a crop of forwards hoping for a second striker's role alongside Fiorentina's Alberto Gilardino.

Marco Camoranesi and Daniele de Rossi will be familiar names in the midfield with Gianluca Zambrotta expecting to move closer to the 100 caps that goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has already accumulated.

It should all add up to a strong challenge, and the combination of Lippi's know-how and the Italian tradition of over-achieving add weight to it. If a penalty shoot-out in the 1994 final had not been lost, then as he pointed out yesterday, it would be Italy, not Brazil who had won most World Cups. Yet few are betting on a fifth one here, even at odds of around 14-1.

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