Spotlight on the World Cup contenders: Italy

Countdown to South Africa: 93 days to go
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The Independent Online

Around this time before the last World Cup Italy thrashed Germany in Florence, laying down a marker for what proved to be a triumphant tournament. There was no such statement in Monte Carlo last week, with Marcello Lippi opting to experiment with tactics and personnel.

The 2006-winning coach admitted before the match that injuries had undermined its validity. "We go into this game wearing a mask, like in a carnival, because we have so many players absent," he said. "But I am not worried, I will have time for that later. It could be the last opportunity to try new things." Afterwards he described the draw as "very useful".

Among the players trialled were two debutants from lesser Serie A teams, defender Leonardo Bonucci from Bari and Cagliari striker Andrea Cossu, the latter being the more impressive. Lippi also fielded a 3-4-3 formation explaining, in a phrase few Premier League coaches are ever likely to feel able to use given most English players' need for the comfort blanket of a back-four: "There isn't much difference between a three-man defence and a four-man defence. Many teams change tactics during a game and we can also do that."

Ideally Lippi would have played Alessandro Nesta rather than Bonucci but the Milan defender this month ruled out returning from international retirement. Francesco Totti has made himself available, but is yet to be picked. Another 2006 veteran, Luca Toni, is also available for a recall but Lippi ruled out Inter's rising star Mario Balotelli, saying he is one for the future.

World Ranking: 4

World Cup Group: F (with New Zealand, Paraguay & Slovakia)

When might they meet England? SF

Odds: 12/1 (PaddyPower)

Pedigree: Winners 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006

Last five results: Rep of Ire D 2-2 (a), Cyprus W 3-2 (h), Netherlands D 0-0 (h), Sweden W 1-0 (h), Cameroon D 0-0 (n)

Upcoming fixtures: Mexico (n, 3 June), Switzerland (a, 5 June).

One to watch: Domenico Criscito

Fan file: Endlessly passionate, although not overly hopeful of retaining trophy they lifted at Germany 2006. Lippi was booed during the laboured win over Cyprus last year, which led him to label the fans "shameful".

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