In the second of a series of articles building up to South Africa 2010, FUtd runs the rule over the holders and their victim.
There couldn’t be a more appropriate adage than ‘out with the old, in with the new’ when analysing France and Italy post-Euro 2008 disappointment.
It is the former, who suffered heartbreak in Berlin almost three years ago, that has needed the most TLC.
The retired stalwarts Claude Makelele and Lillian Thuram gave coach Raymond Domenech, who narrowly escaped his P45, the impetus to freshen up an aging, lacklustre squad.
In has come pace, aggression and desire, which when coupled with the international knowhow of Thierry Henry and William Gallas, will put Les Bleus in with a real shout of repeating their success of 1998.
The major problem Domenech has faced is how, if at all possible, to replace Zinedine Zidane. Marseille’s talented winger Hatem Ben Arfa has failed to make inroads on the international scene, while Samir Nasri has succumbed all too often to niggling injuries.
Yoann Gourcuff, however, is showing signs of being that link man. The 22-year-old, who fell off the radar after two years in the Milan wilderness, has been a revelation during a year-long loan at Bordeaux, scoring 10 goals as Laurent Blanc’s side sits just a point off the Ligue 1 summit.
At the back, error prone, and recently red card-doting, Eric Abidal has been ditched in favour of the more offensive Patrice Evra or Gael Clichy, while Bacary Sagna is now a shoe-in on the right after being inexplicably overlooked last summer.
Ahead of them Lassana Diarra and the underrated Jeremy Toulalan provide aggression, yet simplicity, acting as the perfect foils to the attack-minded Gourcuff and Franck Ribery.
In attack, Domenech is spoilt. Henry and Karim Benzema are the standout names, but no longer is the coach picking on reputation. Form is the order of the day with Toulouse’s Andre Pierre-Gignac and PSG’s Guillaume Hoarau, Ligue 1’s top two marksmen, tapping impatiently on the national door.
The Renaissance, it is believed, was born in Tuscany, and so it’s perhaps fitting that Tuscan Marcello Lippi should be chosen to breathe new life into the Azzuri.
The man who led Italy to World Cup success last time around returned as coach in June, replacing Roberto Donadoni, but that’s where the sentiment ends.
Alessandro Del Piero, Luca Toni and Alberto Gilardino – three forwards under Lippi’s first regime – have been pushed to the sidelines, in favour of the livewire Villareal striker Giuseppe Rossi and powerful Giampaolo Pazzini, who since a January move to Sampdoria from Fiorentina has found the net 10 times in just 15 league outings.
The 30 plus midfield pair of Gennaro Gattuso and Mauro Camoranesi have also been exiled, while thankfully ‘defender’ Marco Materazzi won’t be adding to his substantial 41 international caps.
For a footballing nation passionate about defence, though, the big hope lies with Fabiano Santacroce. The Brazilian born stopper, 22, has been earning rave reviews in Naples and is already being talked among Italian greats as world class in the making. Indeed he’s already been dubbed “the new Alessandro Nesta” by his club chairman.
Come next summer, Santacroce may just be a name in his own right.