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Italians attack their job

Azzurri charge past Ghana

Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro (left) and Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan go toe-to-toe in yesterday’s match.
Italy’s Fabio Cannavaro (left) and Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan go toe-to-toe in yesterday’s match. (AP Photo)

The evolution of Italian soccer from ultra-defensive to attack-minded might have been completed as the Azzurri took a 2-0 win over Ghana last night in Hanover, Germany.

Italy dominated the match against an impressive Ghana team making its World Cup debut. But instead of conserving energy and saving themselves for Saturday's game against the US, the Italians continued to go forward until the final whistle.

Italian soccer has been going through changes since Arrigo Sacchi became coach of AC Milan and based his tactics on the Dutch all-out attack, with players in interchangeable roles.

That evolution took another leap forward when Marcello Lippi was coaching Juventus in the mid-1990s. Lippi was the first Serie A coach to implement a win-at-all-costs strategy, a change in mentality to capitalize on the 3-points-for-a-victory change in the FIFA rules.

And Lippi has continued to ingrain this mentality with the Italian national team, encouraging Alberto Gilardino, Luca Toni, and Francesco Totti to advance into attack early and often, and continue to do so throughout the contest. Last night, Andrea Pirlo found them from deep in the midfield and also went forward to score the first goal in the 40th minute.

But Ghana's hard-charging tactics resulted in just what Italy feared. It gained a victory, but at a price, Totti sustaining a lower left leg injury in a clash with John Pantsil in the 56th minute. Totti concluded the game with his leg immobilized but was able to get off the bench and congratulate substitute Vincenzo Iaquinta after the second goal, then was in a good enough mood to embrace and switch jerseys with AS Roma teammate Sammy Kuffour of Ghana afterward.

The Azzurri showed they are tournament-ready, their passing sharp, the defense coordinated, the Totti-Toni-Gilardino triangle effective up front, the counterattack in full bloom.

Toni was especially strong holding the ball with his back to goal, and surprised Ghana with his ability to run at defenders.

The finishing touch was missing -- but just barely.

In the opening minutes, a Pirlo cross off a counter skidded past Toni, then Gilardino sent the shot through goalkeeper Richard Kingston's legs off the outside of the post. A Cristian Zaccardo-Simone Perrotta combination resulted in a cross that went over both Gilardino and Toni in the 22d minute. Toni's half-volley slammed off the crossbar in the 27th minute. A Totti free kick was tipped over the bar in the 33d minute.

Finally, Italy scored as Totti and Pirlo combined for a short corner. Pirlo took possession near the top of the penalty area, completely unmarked, then lined up a low drive to the far post, Gilardino ducking out of the way as the ball settled into the far corner of the net.

But Italy continued to attack. Unlike in the days of catenaccio, the Azzurri appear to have learned their lessons. Until recently, coaches such as Cesare Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni, with direct ties to the old school of defense-first CALCIO, would have had Italy retreat into a defensive shell.

This time, though, Lippi kept sending in attackers: Mauro Camoranesi for Totti in the 56th minute; Iaquinta for Gilardino in the 64th minute; Alessandro Del Piero for Toni in the 82d minute.

Seconds after Del Piero entered the match, Pirlo stole the ball and found Iaquinta isolated on Kuffour in a counter. Kuffour attempted to play the ball back to Kingston, but Iaquinta reached the ball first and finished into an open net in the 83d minute.

Though Ghana had far too many unforced turnovers, the Black Stars displayed some threatening offensive forays. Against a less experienced and poised defense, Ghana might have scored a couple of times.

The Ghanaians were especially threatening in the first half, as Italy appeared to falter briefly. Asamoah Gyan followed a giveaway in the center circle with a shot barely wide in the 29th minute. Three minutes later, Emmanuel Pappoe was left alone in the penalty area, but hesitated to shoot, then sent his try high.

Ghana successfully attacked on the wings, and it took until the second half before left back Fabio Grosso adjusted. In the 77th minute, Gyan attempted to dribble through three Italians and fell in the penalty area, referee Carlos Simon allowing play to continue.

Michael Essien appeared dangerous from distance, his 54th-minute volley the best Ghana chance, but he was also fortunate to escape at least one caution.

Before the game, Lippi made a statement that probably no Italian national team coach has ever made: ``I can't promise a victory, but how we play will be entertaining."

Previous coaches only promised results at all costs. Lippi was able to win and earn some style points.

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