Football

5 Italy players to watch at the World Cup

ROME (AP) — When Italy won the 2006 World Cup, then-coach Marcello Lippi pointed to the group collective as his squad's strongpoint — and the fact that each forward scored at least one goal over the seven matches attested to that theory.

This year's squad, by contrast, is singularly led by forward Mario Balotelli, the volatile AC Milan forward with superstar potential. Both in their mid-30s, midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon remain the backbone of the squad, Andrea Barzagli anchors the defense and Daniele De Rossi offers coach Cesare Prandelli options with his versatility.

Here are five players to watch:

MARIO BALOTELLI

When Mario Balotelli gets his mind in focus, there is often no stopping him.

Italy has never really had a forward that combines so much physicality and skill — a player who can muscle by defenders to score goals or find the target with well-placed free kicks or penalties.

Until he finally missed in September, Balotelli had converted all 26 penalty kick attempts in his professional career.

But Balotelli has struggled to control his temper and is often subjected to racist taunts. The son of Ghanaian immigrants and raised by an Italian family, he shoulders the burden of representing a new and rapidly expanding class of Italians.

ANDREA PIRLO

Andrea Pirlo will be 35 by the time the World Cup starts but his passing and free kick skills remain undiminished.

Pirlo mesmerizes defenders with his superb ball control and when he has possession it often seems the match speed drops into slow-motion.

Usually positioned just in front of the defense, Pirlo picks out his passing receivers with uncanny acumen and his field vision inspires many of Italy's goals.

He's also a free kick expert, having scored from 24 dead ball kicks in his Serie A career — leaving him within three of the all-time record held by Sinisa Mihajlovic.

GIANLUIGI BUFFON

At 36, Gianluigi Buffon is heading to his fifth World Cup — his fourth as a starter — as Italy's captain and undisputed changing-room leader.

Buffon didn't let in a single goal from opposition players over the normal course of play during Italy's run to the 2006 title, then was injured during the opener when the Azzurri were eliminated in the first round four years ago.

It used to be said that Buffon's one weakness was penalty shootouts, but he stopped three attempts in a shootout win over Uruguay in the third-place match of last year's Confederations Cup.

In October, Buffon passed Fabio Cannavaro for the all-time Italy appearance record with his 137th cap. He now has 139 appearances.

ANDREA BARZAGLI

After being left off the 2010 World Cup squad by Marcello Lippi, Andrea Barzagli has developed into Italy's most reliable center back.

He can partner with Leonardo Bonucci in a traditional four-man defense or anchor a three-man backline that Italy coach Cesare Prandelli often resorts to.

Known for his barrel-like chest, Barzagli has had a series of minor injuries with Juventus this season. He was a reserve on the 2006 World Cup squad and saw action in two matches of the Azzurri's title run.

Barzagli honed his physical skills during three seasons with Wolfsburg in the German Bundesliga.

DANIELE DE ROSSI

Daniele De Rossi is Cesare Prandelli's wild card, a player who the coach can place at any position in midfield or even defense.

A regular starter for Italy since he played at 22 in the squad that won the 2006 World Cup, De Rossi is now 30 and has made 93 appearances — second only to Buffon's 139 and Pirlo's 107 among active players.

His versatility is a product of his completeness, a player who can tackle, pass or shoot with equal ability.

Follow Andrew Dampf at http://twitter.com/asdampf

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