Just a few seconds after the end of last Friday’s quarter-final victory over Ukraine, Italy coach Marcello Lippi beamed a big relaxed smile for the first time since he arrived in Germany.

Much of it was due to Italy’s vastly improved team performance, but it was the return to top form of Gianluca Zambrotta that was probably most responsible for Lippi’s contentment. With so much attention focusing on a chaotic background of corruption trials, an apparent attempted suicide, and controversial red cards it was understandable that the return to scintillating form of Zambrotta caught many by surprise. But it had been coming.

Like many of his club team-mates, the Juventus defender’s form and fitness had collapsed in the final month of the domestic season. Then a serious muscle strain above the abdomen forced him out of two of Italy’s pre-tournament friendlies. He sat out Italy’s opening 2-0 win over Ghana, then his comeback role in the bruising scoredraw against the USA was worryingly below par.

But his performance against Australia had already suggested he was simply emulating Italy’s tradition as slow starters. Then last Friday against Ukraine he even opened the scoring.

So flawless was his game that Italian sports newspapers awarded him an unheard of rating of nine – even Luca Toni scorer of two goals, only received an eight.

Zambrotta, 29, is as crucial to Lippi’s Italy as he was to Lippi’s Juventus. He is that rare commodity – what used to be called a “wing-back”, a wide defender who takes the opportunity to go forward and overlap his opposite number.

His speed and technique allow him to nip inside to take a shot at goal but more often to surge down the flank to drive in low crosses, as he did for Toni’s second goal against Ukraine. That broke Toni’s goalscoring block – despite top-scoring in Serie A with 31 goals the Fiorentina striker had dried up here in Germany – but more importantly it confirmed the return to full fitness of “Zambro”.

His galloping game requires enormous stamina, something he attributes to “mother nature”. The close control is a leftover from his early days as a would-be striker at Como in Italy’s Serie C, just a corner kick from the Swiss border. In 1997, aged 20, he moved from Italy’s far north all the way down to the point of its southern heel to join the exciting young Bari side then in Serie A. Idiosyncratic coach Eugenio Fascetti shifted him into a more midfield role, something consolidated when the “diligent and calm” Zambrotta’s big move came to Juventus in 1999, for €12m.

He is naturally right-footed, but when Lippi took over at Juventus he was switched to wide left, and shifted back into defence. Since current Juve coach Fabio Capello arrived in 2004, Zambrotta has been shifted back once again to the right side. In Germany, he has already operated on both sides of a back four shorn of Alessandro Nesta and Marco Matterazi.

Notoriously quiet on the field of play, he is not exactly loquacious off it, but he did say recently that his most bitter career disappointment was the 2000 European Championships when Italy fell to a golden goal winner by his current Juve team-mate, David Trezeguet.

Tonight’s semi-final could take him to a possible revenge appointment against many of those same French players on Sunday.

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