By Mark Meadows
KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - Ask fans to name a really great Italian defender and they are likely to think of Franco Baresi or Fabio Cannavaro, grand masters who made the art of central defense look a breeze.
Top fullbacks have come and gone too like Giacinto Facchetti, Beppe Bergomi and Paolo Maldini before he switched to the centre, but of late Italy have struggled on their flanks and dangerous England await in Sunday's Euro 2012 quarter-final.
All but one of England's five goals so far this tournament have come via crosses from the right by either Steven Gerrard or Theo Walcott, who scored the other from the centre of the pitch but while effectively playing as a winger.
Italy coach Cesare Prandelli does not seem certain of his best fullback pairing having played the first two group games with three centre halves and two wing backs before reverting to four defenders in the 2-0 win over Ireland.
The fullbacks against the Irish, Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti, seem likely to line up on the right and left respectively in Kiev on Sunday but both will admit they are not in Maldini's class.
"England have quick players who find it easy to cross and have great attackers who are very strong, but with serenity we have to impose our game even if we all have to suffer a bit together," Abate told a news conference on Thursday.
Balzaretti, who only has nine caps despite being 30, is in the frame because usual left back Domenico Criscito was dropped from the squad before the tournament after police said he was being investigated over match-fixing. He denies any wrongdoing.
Criscito had a poor 2010 World Cup so some Azzurri fans are glad to see Palermo's Balzaretti getting his chance, even if he was deemed not good enough for Juventus in 2007 and shipped out.
AC Milan's Abate has made the grade at a top Serie A club but it took him until the age of 24 to become established and he is occasionally the butt of even Rossoneri fans' jokes given his penchant for only running in straight lines.
Abate and Balzaretti have decent pace but in Serie A they do not come up against many opponents who play with natural width like Walcott and they rarely have to deal with the pinpoint crossing ability of someone like Gerrard.
Prandelli's problems are not confined to the fullbacks.
Italy's famed central defense, which seemed to take a safari in South Africa two years ago as the Italians were dumped out in the group stage as holders, will be missing linchpin Giorgio Chiellini because of a thigh injury.
"Definitely Giorgio is a very important player with international experience and strong physique but I'm sure whoever replaces him will be good enough to have a great game," said Abate, who has a nasty cut above his right eye.
Leonardo Bonucci, who has struggled for form at times in the last two seasons, and Andrea Barzagli, who returned against Ireland after two games out with a calf strain, are set to play at centre half unless Prandelli returns to a back three.
Midfielder Daniele De Rossi played as part of a three in the first two group games with Christian Maggio, who made two awful errors in the 3-0 friendly defeat by Russia in May, at right wingback and inexperienced Emanuele Giaccherini on the left.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)