Donadoni starting back at square one
Replacing FIFA World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi was never going to be easy, but Roberto Donadoni has risen to the challenge in style. Now, having guided the Azzurri through a difficult qualifying campaign, the stakes are higher than ever as the former AC Milan midfielder aims to continue where his predecessor left off by winning UEFA EURO 2008™.
"It's never easy when everybody has such great expectations," Donadoni told uefa.com. "The team, however, responded perfectly in all respects. When I took the job I inherited a group of top-level players and a very good coaching staff who gave me a great deal of support. Everything went well after that."
The 44-year-old, though, is fully aware that the praise he earned during qualifying will soon be forgotten should Italy fail to deliver in Austria and Switzerland. "You start again from zero," he said. "Qualifying is history now and those past performances will not give us any advantage in the finals. As always, we'll have to measure ourselves against opponents who will be out to cause us problems. There's nothing new there. We just need to have the right attitude."
Donadoni could be forgiven for the thinking the gods are conspiring against him after the Azzurri were drawn alongside the Netherlands, qualifying rivals France and Romania in Group C. He knows everything will have to go right in the build up to Italy's first match against the Netherlands on 9 June if his side are to get their hands on more silverware this summer.
"My wish? I think it's quite obvious," Donadoni said. "I would like to have a team in good athletic condition. This is my biggest worry ahead of the finals. After that it doesn't make much difference if you face France, the Netherlands or another qualifier like Austria. If you have a team in the best possible physical condition you can play anybody without fear."
Donadoni may feel some relief that his former Rossoneri team-mate Marco van Basten will be confined to a coaching role when the sides meet in Berne. The Oranje boss appeared in two UEFA European Championships as a player, starring in the Netherlands' 1988 triumph after Donadoni and Italy had been eliminated by the USSR in the semi-finals. "I think Marco van Basten's goal in the final is one of the most beautiful goals ever scored in this competition," Donadoni said of the Dutchman's blistering volley.
The career paths of Van Basten and Donadoni have been eerily similar since then. After helping Milan to three European Champion Clubs' Cup wins, the pair have both taken charge of their respective national teams despite possessing limited top-level coaching experience. Donadoni enjoyed brief spells with Calcio Lecco 1912, AS Livorno Calcio and Genoa CFC before landing Italy's top job, but feels his distinguished playing career has also helped him prepare for the role.
"Playing in the European Championship was a particularly important experience," he stressed. "For a footballer, taking part in such a tournament is extremely valuable, regardless of the result. In 1988 we lost in the semis, then four years later we failed to qualify after missing a penalty in the decisive game. However, both were great experiences."
Donadoni benefited from playing under two of European football's shrewdest tactical minds in Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello, and is now keen to pass down his knowledge. "I had many experiences in my career and was lucky to play for several good coaches and with some fantastic team-mates," he explained. "One of my most important duties now is to share those experiences with my players."
The reassuring sight of Donadoni patrolling the touchline could prove vital for a rejuvenated Italy side that will be counting on inspiration from certain young guns following the international retirements of stalwarts like Francesco Totti and Alessandro Nesta. "When you reach this stage, you try to make sure all the players are in the right mental condition," Donadoni said. "Then all you can ask is that the team performs to the best of its ability." After cheering their side on to victory in Berlin two years ago, Azzurri fans will expect nothing less from Donadoni's charges this summer.