Plenty for Lippi to ponder over

As Alberto Gilardino disappeared beneath a heap of teammates, Italy inadvertently re-enacted one of their most memorable goal celebrations of recent times.

Italy's players pile on top of Alberto Gilardino, whose last-minute equaliser against Irerland in Dublin saw them qualify for the World Cup.
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As Alberto Gilardino disappeared beneath a heap of teammates, Italy inadvertently re-enacted one of their most memorable goal celebrations of recent times. Three years ago, Fabio Grosso was covered by colleagues in similar fashion. The left-back's goal against Germany in 2006 clinched a place in the World Cup final whereas the striker's finish against the Republic of Ireland merely ensured a place in South Africa. Both, at the end of extra and regulation time respectively, were late and decisive interventions.

For Italy, the auspicious parallels do not end there. Coach Marcello Lippi said: "This is the third time Italy has qualified one match before the end of the campaign. The others were in 1982 and 2006." Indeed, given an Italian tradition of making qualification an awkward progress, to remain unbeaten counts as smooth progress. Yet Saturday's 2-2 draw with the Republic of Ireland, like the campaign as a whole, gives Lippi plenty to ponder in the eight months before Italy's defence of their World Cup begins. His choices of formation and footballers both present a debate.

Lippi has experimented with a midfield diamond and a 4-3-3 formation. On Saturday, he played 4-2-3-1 with Andrea Pirlo the designated fantasista. The Milan man is revisiting his youth, before Carlo Ancelotti converted him to a deep-lying playmaker, but it smacks of an uneasy compromise because of Pirlo's poor form in his usual role and the lack of a natural successor to Alessandro del Piero and Francesco Totti as a second striker.

Pirlo provided Mauro Camoranesi's goal at Croke Park with a typically accurate corner, but the theory that he and Daniele de Rossi are incompatible as a central midfield duo helps account for his move. Yet, if 4-2-3-1 is the chosen shape, a shortage of natural wingers hinders Italy. Camoranesi's effort is unquestioned but, at 33, he rarely beats a full-back. That provides a case for either Fiorentina's Marco Marchionni or Inter's precocious Mario Balotelli.

Instead, the threat from the flanks came initially from the overlapping Grosso and later from Vincenzo Iaquinta, the first-choice forward who was relocated to the left when Gilardino came on. He created Italy's second equaliser which further complicated the equation in attack. Gilardino may be Italy's best natural finisher, but his words betrayed an uncertainty. "It was my most important goal for the Azzurri," the Fiorentina forward said. "I am here and will try to hold on to my place until the last day, whatever Lippi decides will be accepted."

Besides Iaquinta, the preferred target man, and Antonio di Natale, who started on the left, the squad includes Fabio Quagliarella and Giuseppe Rossi. Then there is the possibility of the Brazilian Amauri acquiring Italian citizenship, though his inability to score this season makes that prospect less enticing, while the Sampdoria partnership of Giampaolo Pazzini and Antonio Cassano have their advocates. The past, in the shape of del Piero and Luca Toni, could yet make a reappearance.

It amounts to a surfeit of contenders with too few making an unarguable case. Although Iaquinta toiled tirelessly, he was being left isol-ated by an imbalanced midfield for long periods. More support would surely have been appreciated. Especially if Pirlo returns to a position in front of the back four, Riccardo Montolivo and Alberto Aquilani offer options as more progressive midfielders. With both system and style of play to be determined, however, the one constant is the four-man defence.

The captain Fabio Cannavaro is available again for the visit of Cyprus on Wednesday, buoyed by the news that he will not be banned for failing a drugs test following a cortisone treatment to a wasp sting. The 36-year-old may be in decline but in his absence against Ireland, Nicola Legrottaglie was troubled by Robbie Keane. The rapid development of the 18-year-old Inter's Davide Santon suggests he could challenge Gianluca Zambrotta and Grosso for the full-back positions.

But while Lippi has gradually been weaned off his reliance on the 2006 World Cup winners, too few others have cemented their places on the plane. Now change may come in the personnel or the performances. Italy teams in major tournaments tend to be unrecognisable from the sides that have laboured through qualification. Euphoric as the celebrations in Dublin were, they must precede the transformation of Italy into challengers again.