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Stalled offense dooms Italians

| Tuesday, June 24, 2008

BADEN, Austria -- Italy overcame the loss of injured captain Fabio Cannavaro and the huge defensive hole that created. What did the World Cup champions in at the European Championship was an ineffective attack, overly reliant on an off-form Luca Toni, and designed by a coach that few people believed in.

The Italians lost 4-2 on penalty kicks to Spain following a dull 0-0 draw in the quarterfinals Sunday.

"I'm not stupid and I'm not going to search for excuses," said coach Roberto Donadoni, who could lose his job. "The team came here in this condition and they gave everything they had until the last drop of sweat. If you look at the result, it doesn't take a genius to say it wasn't extraordinary."

None of Italy's seven attacking players scored during the four games, with the only goals coming from defender Christian Panucci in a 1-1 draw, with Romania, and midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi in a 2-0 win over France to round out group play.

"It didn't go well," center forward Toni said. "Before this game, despite the scoreless streak, I was satisfied because the team still advanced and I made my contribution. Now we're leaving after getting beat on penalties, and I'm sorry I didn't score."

Toni scored 39 goals for Bayern Munich last season, but hasn't found the net for Italy since a friendly against Portugal in February, a streak of seven games and 535 minutes.

Still, Donadoni rarely called for anything beyond crosses and high balls in search of Toni's 6-foot-4 frame. Shots from beyond the penalty area were few and far between.

Now, Donadoni is widely expected to be replaced by Marcello Lippi, who appears ready to step back in after leading Italy to the World Cup title two years ago.

"We weren't missing anything, just a little bit of luck -- the luck from the World Cup," said Fabio Grosso, the defender who converted the decisive penalty kick in the shootout victory over France in the World Cup final.

Italy also was hit with some bad luck when Cannavaro tore ligaments in his ankle six hours after Italy's plane touched down in Austria, ruling him out of the tournament.

The hole that opened in the Azzurri defense by Cannavaro's absence was so large that Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wesley Sneijder and Giovanni van Bronckhorst waltzed right through it to subject Italy to its worst loss in nearly 40 years, 3-0 in the Group C opener.

The defeat marked the first time Italy was beaten by a three-goal margin in a major tournament since the 4-1 loss to Brazil in the 1970 World Cup final.

"This European Championship started badly and finished even worse," Cannavaro said.

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon kept the Azzurri alive by saving Adrian Mutu's penalty kick in the draw with Romania, and the Dutch helped keep Italy in by beating Romania in the final round of group games.

It's not the first time Italy has followed a good World Cup with a bad -- or mediocre -- European Championship.

After the Azzurri won the 1982 World Cup, they didn't even qualify for Euro 1984. A third-place finish at the 1990 World Cup was followed by another failed qualifying campaign, and a runner-up performance at the 1994 World Cup preceded a first-round exit at Euro 1996 in England.

France remains the only team to follow a World Cup victory with a European Championship title, in 1998 and 2000. The Azzurri attempted to match the feat with the oldest squad of the tournament, with an average age of 29.14.

For several Italy players, Sunday's game may have marked the end of an era.

At 34, Marco Materazzi was unable to match his World Cup heroics when he was tapped to replace Cannavaro against the Netherlands. The Inter Milan defender was benched in the next three games and might not play again for the Azzurri.

Alessandro Del Piero, at 33 struggling to perform on the international stage, also might have ended his Azzurri career.

Defender Alessandro Nesta and playmaker Francesco Totti retired from international play after the World Cup, and they were both sorely missed at this year's tournament. So was Filippo Inzaghi, the cunning AC Milan striker Donadoni left off his squad in a controversial move.

Inzaghi, who scored twice in both the Champions League and Club World Cup finals last year, could have been the perfect player to pounce on all those loose balls created by headers from Toni.

"I'm very happy with the players I brought," Donadoni said. "It's too easy to say those things after the fact."

Donadoni should be credited with developing Giorgio Chiellini into the next in Italy's long line of expert defenders. The youngest member of the squad at 23, Chiellini filled in admirably for Cannavaro after moving ahead of Materazzi on the depth chart.

"I should be really satisfied for stopping the Spanish forwards (Fernando Torres and David Villa), but I can't be after such a disappointment," Chiellini said after the shootout loss.

However, Italy is still the World Cup champion, and the team will play at the Confederations Cup under that title next year in South Africa. The makeup of that roster -- and who will coach it -- is very uncertain.

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