It has been a dark week for Italian teams in Europe, not only in the Champions League, but also in the UEFA Cup last night when three of the four clubs, including favourites Milan, were sent packing.
However, out of all this depression, a couple of positives did arise. Their names? Marco Motta and Davide Santon.
On Tuesday night at the Emirates, full back Motta delivered a fantastic performance for Roma during their defeat at Arsenal, dominating Gael Clichy down the right flank, and confirming that he is a potential star of the future. The same evening, Santon impressed hugely at left back during Inter's disappointing goalless draw with Manchester United, neutralising Cristiano Ronaldo, and once again belying his 18-years-of-age.
Most would agree that Italy’s best back four at the moment comprises of Gianluca Zambrotta, Fabio Cannavaro, Giorgio Chiellini, and Fabio Grosso. The problem is that apart from the Juventus man who is 24, the other three are rather close to pensionable age. Zambrotta is 32, Grosso 31 and captain Cannavaro has reached an impressive 35-years-of-age.
So how did Italy arrive at this point? Has the country best known for its defenders lost its touch?
In order to answer these questions, it is important to travel back to 2004. While the senior side were failing miserably in Portugal, the Under-21s were winning the European Championships.
The back four that triumphed in Germany, almost exactly two years before Italy’s World Cup win, was made up of, Emiliano Moretti, Daniele Bonera, Andrea Barzagli and Cesare Bovo. Everything seemed to be on the right track, and the next generation of defenders looked to be coming along nicely.
But something went wrong. Moretti was a victim of Parma’s meltdown, and was sold to Valencia, Bonera has failed to really make the grade at Milan, and Bovo, after an unsuccessful time at Roma, went to Palermo, and no longer seems to be on the national team radar.
The only one of the four who received a real spot in the senior team was Barzagli, who picked up a winners medal in 2006. But even Barzagli only survived because Cannavaro was in inspired form, as was proved by his disastrous display at Euro 2008 against Holland.
However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel.
Marco Motta is one name, but there is also Davide Santon, who at the age of just 18, is not only playing under a demanding boss like Jose Mourinho, but already looked like a seasoned veteran when making his Champions League debut on Tuesday.
Marcello Lippi told the Italian papers, “He [Santon] reminds me of a young Paolo Maldini.”
With this kind of praise coming from the World Cup-winning coach, it is not unreasonable to assume that some of these young men are part of Lippi’s plans to defend Italy’s title in South Africa next year.
Two others who could be involved are Juventus youngster Paolo De Ceglie, and Napoli defender Fabiano Santacroce. The Juve man needs to find more space in the first team, while the Napoli player will have to hope his side improves quickly if he is to continue to catch the eye.
So what might the defence look like in 2010?
Supposing the starting backline is the veterans plus Chiellini, the four substitutes could include Motta, Santon, Santacroce and De Ceglie.
This is of course pure conjecture, but Italy also have the Confederations Cup to play in June, and it should give some clue to Lippi’s intentions.
The other name to be kept in mind is Genoa's Domenico Criscito, who had a slightly unhappy time at Juventus between 2004 and 2006, but at just 22 has time to recover and grow.
All this presupposes that there will not be a repeat of Grosso’s meteoric rise, and if nothing changes, Nicola Legrottaglie, who will be nearly 34 when the World Cup comes around, will take one of the eight spots normally reserved for defenders in a tournament squad.
Of course anything can happen from now until then, a year and a half is an age in football, but the future in defence certainly looks brighter than it did only a few months ago.
Simon Finaldi, Goal.com