Where is the next Cannavaro, Nesta & Maldini? Italy's defensive production line has ground to a halt

The Azzurri are so short on quality at the back that they are considering using Daniele De Rossi as a centre-half against Spain in their Euro 2012 opener on Sunday
By Mark Doyle | Italy Expert

"I was surprised by the defence," Italy boss Cesare Prandelli admitted after last Friday’s 3-0 friendly defeat by Russia. He was sugar-coating things. The Azzurri’s defensive display in Zurich was worse than surprising - it was shocking.

There was, of course, one positive, with Federico Balzaretti proving himself an able deputy for Domenico Criscito on the left-hand side. But there really is no accounting for the kind of calamitous performance produced by right-back Christian Maggio, who made more mistakes than a dyslexic during an eye exam.

However, one cannot attribute the defensive deficiencies so ruthlessly exploited by Russia solely to individual errors. Indeed, Italy were repeatedly ripped to shreds by the intricate link-up play and intelligent running of Andrei Arshavin and his accomplices.

Prandelli was clearly more disturbed by what he saw in Zurich than he initially let on because he is now considering switching to a back three for the first time in his two-year tenure. Not only that, the former Viola boss is giving serious thought to starting Daniele De Rossi in defence.

De Rossi, of course, was utilised on several occasions as a centre-half by Roma last season, but that Prandelli is actually genuinely entertaining the idea of selecting a midfielder at the back against Spain this weekend - the biggest game of his coaching career - is not only a major risk, it is also a damning indictment of the quality of the centre-backs currently available to the Azzurri boss.

Admittedly, Andrea Barzagli's absence has left a major void in Italy's rearguard, given the Juventus man is coming off a terrific domestic campaign, but it is staggering that a country so renowned for producing world-class defenders does not have a single worthy replacement. There was even talk of Andrea Ranocchia being called up. Ranocchia!

How on earth has it come to this? Just six years ago, Italy travelled to Germany with a first-choice central defensive pairing of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta, two of the finest centre-halves of the modern era, and although the latter succumbed to injury, the Azzurri lifted the World Cup after conceding just two goals, one of which was an own goal, while the other came from the penalty spot.

Of course, Cannavaro and Nesta's time with the Nazionale overlapped with that of Paolo Maldini, one of the greatest defenders ever to play the game.

Maldini spent a large chunk of his Milan career playing alongside legendary libero Franco Baresi. We could go on: Claudio Gentile, Gaetano Scirea, Giuseppe Bergomi, Giacinto Facchetti, Tarcisio Burgnich ... the list is almost endless. But the point is that Italy, the home of catenaccio, has an unrivalled history of producing outstanding defenders. Sound defensive play is as Italian as pasta, pizza and puffy jackets.

And yet the Azzurri are going into their Euro 2012 opener against reigning champions Spain in Gdansk with serious doubts over the formation and make-up of their back line. It is a worrying state of affairs, and not just in terms of Italy's hopes of subduing a side with a wonderful aptitude for prising open the most well-drilled defences.

No, the real concern is that there are no obvious successors to the likes of Cannavaro, Nesta and Maldini out there. While this season has seen the emergence of fresh-faced forwards such as Mattia Destro and Fabio Borini, and a promising Pirlo-like playmaker in the form of Marco Verratti, there have been no up-and-coming defenders pushing for inclusion in the Azzurri panel, particularly in light of Davide Santon's disappointing regression after such a promising start to his career. That is an ominous sign for the Italian game.

In that context, the Azzurri really could do with the kind of backs-to-the-wall performance against Spain in Gdansk on Sunday evening which has become their trademark; one which not only significantly boosts their hopes of emerging from a tricky group, but also reminds the watching world that when it comes to the art of defending, Italy remain its finest exponents.

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