By Christopher Boulay

The 2006 World Cup Champions Italy have had quite the roller coaster ride over the past four years. They went from lifting the trophy, to having one of their most disappointing showings ever under the watch of Roberto Donadoni in Euro 2008. Then, Marcello Lippi took over the reigns again to guide them through a very successful qualifying campaign to this tournament.

Now, a surprise omission from the 23 man squad in Giuseppe Rossi and a horribly timed injury for Andrea Pirlo seriously jeopardizes the Azzurri’s hopes of a repeat performance this time around. But if there is any country that is unfazed by adversity, it is the Italians.

How they qualified: Italy finished first in UEFA Qualifying Group Eight with 24 points, six points ahead of second place Ireland. Italy had seven wins, three draws and no losses. Forward Alberto Gilardino led the Italians in scoring with four goals.

9/6/08- Italy 2-1 Cyprus

9/10/08- Italy 2-0 Georgia

10/11/08- Italy 0-0 Bulgaria

10/15/08- Italy 2-1 Montenegro

3/28/09- Italy 2-0 Montenegro

4/1/09- Italy 1-1 Ireland

9/5/09- Italy 2-0 Georgia

9/9/09-  Italy 2-0 Bulgaria

10/10/09- Italy 2-2 Ireland

10/14/09- Italy 3-2 Cyprus

Italy was seeded as one of the top nations in the world to top their World Cup Group F, which includes fellow UEFA member Slovakia, OFC member New Zealand and CONMEBOL member Paraguay.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Italy’s 23-man squad:

Goalkeepers:   Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Morgan De Sanctis (Napoli), Federico Marchetti (Cagliari)

Defenders: Salvatore Bocchetti (Genoa), Leonardo Bonucci (Bari), Fabio Cannavaro (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Domenico Criscito (Genoa), Christian Maggio (Napoli), Gianluca Zambrotta (AC Milan)

Midfielders: Mauro Camoranesi (Juventus), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Gennaro Gattuso (AC Milan), Claudio Marchisio (Juventus), Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina), Angelo Palombo (Sampdoria), Simone Pepe (Udinese), Andrea Pirlo (AC Milan)

Forwards: Antonio Di Natale (Udinese), Alberto Gilardino (Fiorentina), Vincenzo Iaquinta (Juventus), Giampaolo Pazzini (Sampdoria), Fabio Quagliarella (Napoli)

Players to watch:

Forward: Antonio Di Natale- the 32 year-old is donning the number 10 shirt this world cup, and he has some massive shoes to fill. Memories of Roberto Baggio and Francesco Totti come to mind, putting incredible pressure on Di Natale. With only 33 caps to his credit and nine goals, big things are expected from the Udinese skipper. If Italy wants a repeat performance in the tournament, Di Natale is going to have to be the talisman.

Midfield: Andrea Pirlo- Yes, he is out for at least two matches, but if Italy has any shot at making a respectable run, it will be on Pirlo’s shoulders. He is one of the best in the world at set pieces, and he needs to be electric this time around.

Defense: Fabio Cannavaro- “Che Capitano” may be getting older, but he is still massive in the back four for the Italians. The most capped Italian player of all-time, with 133; he will have to wake the ghosts of 2006 to help.

Goalkeeping: Gianluigi Buffon- Once thought of as the best keeper in the world, Buffon is older, 32 to be exact. Despite this, Buffon is a spectacular keeper, and he should continue to be a rock in net for the Italians; something that Italy has come to expect from their best keeper of all time.

There are so many “what ifs” in the Italian setup that it really makes one wonder if they will have a repeat performance of Euro 2008. But if the Italians can have it come together like they did in the group stages of 2006, it could be raining blue and white confetti again. Don’t count on it, though. Italy should win their group, but they will be running into some very tough competition in the knockouts, and they could very well be overpowered by the Round of 16 or the quarterfinals.