International Soccer
Del Piero has made his case for EURO 2008

By Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor

Stoppage Time Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - In a little over one month, the top teams in Europe will converge on Austria and Switzerland to compete in EURO 2008, and it would be wrong if the name of Alessandro Del Piero was not on Italy's roster.

Del Piero's inclusion in the team looked to be a long shot back in September when he played a lackluster match in Italy's 0-0 draw with France in EURO 2008 qualifying.

Italian National Team boss Roberto Donadoni then proceeded to drop Del Piero from the team for the remaining four games of qualifying, leading many to believe that the 33-year-old Del Piero had played his final game for the Azzurri.

Del Piero did some campaigning for a place back on the team, but more importantly, he turned his attention to his role as captain of Juventus, leading the team back towards the top of Serie A after it spent a season in Serie B following a match-fixing scandal.

"Donadoni wants responses on the field and I know I can give them to him," Del Piero said at a March news conference. "I'm aware of the beautiful season I've had up to now and I want to finish even better. Then the coach has the freedom to make the choices he feels most appropriate. I must continue as I am."

Alessandro Del Piero
Alessandro Del Piero lead Juventus back towards the top of Serie A.
He was correct about his beautiful season up to that point, which included 11 goals, but even he has to be impressed with how strongly he is finishing the current campaign.

The month of April has served as quite an audition for his place on Donadoni's squad, as Del Piero has netted seven goals in five games, including a hat - trick against Atalanta.

He also scored the game-winning goal in Sunday's win over Lazio, which secured a spot in the Champions League for Juventus with three games to play.

Del Piero's 18 goals are the most he has scored since the 2002-03 season, when he tallied 21, and he still has time to top that mark.

In addition to his goal-scoring prowess, Del Piero has been a fantastic leader over the past two years, which has not been easy given Juve's situation.

The club won the Scudetto in 2005-06, but was later stripped and demoted to Serie B because of match fixing. This caused a number of the team's top players, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Fabio Cannavaro, to jump ship.

However, Del Piero remained on board with a number of other veterans, and together they have restored Juve back to their place among Europe's elite.

The club is expected to get a big influx of cash to spend in the transfer market this summer because of this season's success, and Del Piero has got to be given a lot of credit for helping to perform such a quick turnaround.

His performances on the international level have not always lived up to expectation, but 26 goals in 85 games along with a ton of big-match experience cannot be discounted.

Del Piero has been a member of three World Cup teams, including Italy's 2006 championship side, as well as a three-time participant in the European Championships.

He helped lead Italy to the EURO 2000 finals, and has played in four Champions League finals with Juventus, including a title-winning side in 1996.

This experience can only help an Italy team that has been drawn into the toughest group in this year's tournament, one that includes France, the Netherlands and Romania.

As far as Del Piero's role in the side, even he will acknowledge that the distinction of first-choice striker belongs to Bayern Munich's Luca Toni, who will man the lone striker spot in Donadoni's favored 4-2-3-1 formation.

This would leave Del Piero to fill the role of second-half substitute or even occupy one of the spots in behind Toni.

Younger strikers like Alberto Gilardino, Fabio Quagliarella and Del Piero's Juventus teammate, Vincenzo Iaquinta, have replaced him over the last few games. However, none possess the shear goal-scoring instinct that Del Piero has shown over his career, he simply has a nose for the goal that cannot be taught.

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and Juventus manager Claudio Ranieri have both publicly stated that they cannot imagine the Azzurri in EURO 2008 without Del Piero, and judging by an interview with Italy's LA7 TV, Donadoni is well aware of the public pressure.

"I have never said that Alessandro has lost the Azzurri shirt," Donadoni said. "No one can blame me for this because there is still a long way to go before the European Championship. My ambition is to do well with the Nazionale and to keep my job for a long time. This is my main and only target so I am totally focused on it. I have no intentions to quit because what I would like to do is keep on coaching the Azzurri."

If Donadoni is serious about keeping his job in charge of the national team, he would be wise to give Del Piero one last run on a big stage - he has earned it with his play this season.

Comments? Criticism? Applause?
Contact Tim Keeble at tkeeble@sportsnetwork.com
Contact Brian Westfall at bwestfall@sportsnetwork.com

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