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Vezzali can give thrust to Italy's waning challenge

Spotlight on the main medal contenders: Veteran female fencer expected to win fourth consecutive gold – and make history

Valentina Vezzali can make history in London. Another gold for the fencer would make her the first ever woman to win four consecutive individual Olympic gold medals. Only two men – Carl Lewis and Al Oerter – have ever done it. Not for the first time, fencing bears the weight of Italian medal hopes. With the slow slip of their performances at recent games, Vezzali's setting an Olympic record would make an important mark for a nation with high sporting expectations.

It should be no surprise that fencing is the sharp point of the Italian challenge. This has always been their best Olympic sport. They have won more gold medals in it than any other country – 45 – with cycling next at 33. Their greatest ever Olympian, Edoardo Mangiarotti, won six gold, five silver and two bronze medals in it. He started in Berlin 1936 and ended back in Italy, at Rome 1960.

Vezzali cannot yet match Mangiarotti for longevity, but her greatness is unquestionable. The 38-year-old from Jesi started at Atlanta in 1996 with silver in the Individual Foil and gold in Team Foil, alongside another icon of the sport, Giovanna Trillini. In Sydney the team gold was retained, while Vezzali won her own event, which she did again in Athens and Beijing too. Her closest rivals in the individual foil, which starts tomorrow, are fellow-Italians Elisa Di Francisca and Arianna Errigo, world No 3 and 4 respectively. Between them, Italy are very strong favourites for another team foil gold.

There was no surprise, then, when Vezzali was announced as carrying the Italian flag at the opening ceremony. Federica Pellegrini, the next most likely gold-medallist, was pleased with the choice. "She has always been my candidate," said the swimmer, "and I'm happy she was chosen. It's a reward for her career. As always, I'll watch the ceremony from the Olympic village."

Pellegrini is competing in the 200m and 400m freestyle, and is a double-world champion and a favourite in both. After silver in the 200m in the Athens Olympics she won gold in Beijing, before gold over both distances in the world championships of 2009 and 2011. Her duel with Rebecca Adlington in the 400m will be quite something; Pellegrini won gold and Adlington silver in that event in the world championship, Pellegrini triumphing by more than two clear seconds. At least one gold medal is likely for the 23-year-old from near Venice, and she may well overturn home support and win a second as well.

Beyond Vezzali and Pellegrini, though, the challenge is not as strong. The Italian performances at recent games have been gradually dropping down the medal table; sixth in Atlanta, seventh in Sydney, eighth in Athens and ninth in Beijing. Thirteen gold medals in 1996 became 10 in 2004 and just eight last time. And there is no men's football team, for the first time since 1980.

There will be a challenge in boxing though, with heavyweight Clemente Russo announcing the quality of the Italian side. "It is a strong team with two young men with good chances of medals and then five old men who have good chances too," Russo said.

The other old man is Roberto Cammarelle. He won gold in superheavyweight at Beijing but will face here Britain's Anthony Joshua, who beat him in the quarter-final of the world amateur championship last year. Russo won silver in Beijing, and promised that he, too is "here for a gold medal. No 1 is all I am thinking about now."