Euro 2012 Comment: Prandelli Beware - Better Teams Than Italy Have Been Turned Over By Northern Ireland At Windsor Park's Peter Staunton advises Cesare Prandelli on Northern Ireland's main threats.
Wins over Estonia and Faroe Islands in the opening two matchdays of the UEFA Euro 2012 qualification campaign have given Cesare Prandelli a 100 per cent competitive record but taking the Azzurri to Windsor Park will be a trickier assignment than his first two encounters.

Northern Ireland came off the back of a prolonged lull to register a victory over Slovenia away from home in their only outing in the group so far, a result that has brought forth confidence in the ranks. Nigel Worthington's side had previously been winless, and indeed, goalless for about a year's worth of international action but showed organization and resolve to leave Maribor with the full haul of points, thanks to Manchester United's Corry Evans.

Although their form can be patchy, make no mistake, Northern Ireland are a match for any team in Belfast. England, in the run up to World Cup 2006, and Spain's eventual Euro 2008 winners were both chastened in the hostile environs of Windsor Park with the talismanic David Healy at his myth-making best throughout both encounters. Healy remains a part of Worthington's set-up but the lop-lopsidedness of his career, in terms of international and domestic form, has seen him shunned to the point of exclusion at Sunderland.

Daniele De Rossi |
Short of form

Instead the manager may turn to Kyle Lafferty, the maligned Rangers player who has discovered, for the first time in his Ibrox career, a run of decent form. Giorgio Chiellini is capable of marshaling strikers with aerial threats but the strapping Lafferty could prove too burly for Leonardo Bonucci and Domenico Criscito (if he starts). And while Italy's new era, ushered in by Prandelli, has seen a multitude of changes in the playing personnel, Northern Ireland will be able to count on nine starters and two substitutes from the famous win against the Spanish.

Among them will be English Premier League representatives Jonny Evans, Chris Baird, Chris Brunt and Aaron Hughes while SPL based Steven Davis and Stephen Craigan have been in tremendous form for Rangers and Motherwell respectively. Northern Ireland have a settled base in their ranks, although the loss through injury of the wild-card Paddy McCourt is a blow, due to the susceptibility to pace of the Italian defense.

Prandelli has chopped and changed in the full-back areas since the beginning of his tenure but has made up his mind on Emiliano Viviano in goal. Gianluca Zambrotta has been brought back into the set-up, perhaps surprisingly, despite being excluded for the initial part of Prandelli's stewardship. That says more about the dearth of decent full-backs in the peninsula than it does about any perceived upturn in the player's form. It is a relief for the Italians that he will not have to face the trickery and poise of Celtic's McCourt.

Daniele De Rossi has been as poor as most of his Roma team-mates so far this term and has yet to adequately put his distinctive stamp on Serie A but the form of Andrea Pirlo will ease Prandelli's concerns somewhat.

Chris Brunt | Set-piece danger, creative

The coach himself admits that la Nazionale are short of effective players in wide areas. Simone Pepe, Mario Balotelli, Giuseppe Rossi, Antonio Cassano and Fabio Quagliarella have all been tried there under Prandelli with only Cassano making any sort of impact, against Estonia. Northern Ireland are a resolute team who will afford Italy few breaks in the attacking third and will make life uncomfortable from set-pieces due to the proficiency of the left-footed Brunt.

Italy cannot afford to underestimate Northern Ireland; it would be just like them to add the four-time World Cup winners to the Windsor scrap heap.

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