Old man Panucci prepared to shoulder Italian defensive burden
N (Austria) - With World Cup winning veteran central defenders Fabio Cannavaro and Marco Materazzi either out injured or out of favour it has fallen to another old stager Christian Panucci to marshal the defence in Sunday's Euro 2008 quarter-final against Spain.
The 35-year-old has an even greater incentive to deliver only Italy's second European title as he was not part of the World Cup winning squad, having failed to find favour with then coach Marcello Lippi, who he had not got on with when at Inter Milan.
However, it maybe doesn't matter as much to the 56-times capped defender - who may have only scored four goals but two have been crucial - one earning them an injury-time win over Scotland which got them to the finals and the other the draw with Romania which garnered a point here.
He cheated death in 1996 on returning early from the Olympics after picking up an injury. He decided in a twist of fate to switch flights - his original TAW flight crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite his age, the former AC Milan, Real Madrid, Monaco and now AS Roma defender - who earned a recall once his former AC Milan team-mate Roberto Donadoni replaced Lippi as coach of the Azzurri - is clearly up for what will more than likely be his last chance at the big national team trophies.
"In my 18 year career, I have never had major injury problems," said Panucci.
"And then there is the incentive of playing in a Euro quarter-final and that overrides any type of tiredness.
"And it is even more true of myself because it is likely to be my last major international occasion."
It's fair to say that Panucci has not let his country down here - inadvertently blamed for the Dutch first goal in the 3-0 Group defeat when he was lying off the pitch injured but the referee ruled him as playing Ruud van Nistelrooy onside - he has teamed up with the youngest member of the squad 23-year-old Giorgio Chiellini in the centre of defence to only concede one in the last two matches.
The duo have impressed since replacing the duo of Materazzi - whose frailties and age were exposed by the Dutch - and Andrea Barzagli, who was also dropped and has since been ruled out with a left knee injury, even though quite apart from a generation in terms of age separating them they hardly knew each other.
"We talk a lot, myself and Giorgio," said Panucci.
"We don't know each other very well, notably in our movements, but that allows us to change around a lot.
"In any case, I can assure you that he (Chiellini) will be one of the best central defenders in the world. He has everything."
Panucci, who has twice won the Champions League first with AC Milan and then Real Madrid in 1994 and 1998 respectively, said that he had no worries over his fitness levels despite his age.
"In the tests we carry out every morning in training, I am one of those who recuperate the quickest.
"Perhaps it is also because where I play it means I expend less energy than the others."
Panucci, though, has no doubts that his nascent partnership with Chiellini will have enough quality to see off the imposing striking partnership of David Villa, who has four goals so far, and Fernando Torres, who has just one.
"How are we going to stop them? Like we went about stopping two other very good players, (Thierry) Henry and (Karim) Benzema," said Panucci, referring to their final Group C game which Italy won 2-0.
As for the future, dare he when he is in such good form now dream of even going as far as the 2010 World Cup?
"It would not be intelligent on my part," he said.
"At 37 years old my legs may be worn out."