MANGARATIBA, Brazil – Italy used to produce world-class defenders the way that Brazil produces strikers of genius.
From Claudio Gentile to Franco Baresi to Giuseppe Bergomi to Paolo Maldini and the more recent pair of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta, there never seemed to be a worry in defense.
These days, though, the Azzurri are wondering what has gone wrong in an area of the pitch they once dominated.
When Italy coach Cesare Prandelli selected an Argentine-born center back, Gabriel Paletta, in his World Cup squad, it raised eyebrows in the land that created the vaunted "catenaccio" lockdown defense.
Under the catenaccio system, Italy used to hunker down in a completely defensive mode and frustrate opponents before striking back with swift counterattacks.
Is the situation really desperate enough, commentators asked, that Italy needs to recruit foreign-born players for a position where it once dominated?
"It's true and it's something we've talked about among ourselves," defender Giorgio Chiellini said Saturday. "We've lost some intensity in defense. Two years ago we were better organized and the most important thing, especially at a World Cup, is to not let in any goals."
In 27 matches since Italy reached the 2012 European Championship final, the Azzurri have conceded a whopping 35 goals.
Ten of those goals came in the five matches that Italy played in last year's Confederations Cup. There was alarm then but Prandelli attributed the high number to Italy's new propensity to attack and to break out of defense quickly.
Last year, Prandelli tested out midfielder Daniele De Rossi at the center of a three-man defense.
More recent matches have also proved alarming.
On Wednesday, Italy gave away a late equalizer in a 1-1 draw with Luxembourg when Maxime Chanot rose above the Azzurri defense virtually unchallenged to head home Mario Mutsch's corner — silencing a stunned crowd in Perugia.
There were also 2-2 draws with Denmark, Armenia and Nigeria in October and November — part of a seven-match winless streak the Azzurri are currently on.
"When you talk about defense you can't think only about the four men in the back, but the positioning of the entire squad," Chiellini said. "We're lacking the right distances between the lines."
Italy opens the World Cup against England next weekend in Manaus and all four center backs are dealing with minor physical problems.
Chiellini has a troubled back, Andrea Barzagli is recovering from a fever, Paletta is working his way back from a muscle strain and Leonardo Bonucci also has a knock.
"We're all improving, though," Chiellini said.
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