The world champions will be looking to all but book their spot in the finals with victory over Ireland this week.
Closing In On South Africa
Italy managed to record a hard fought 2-0 victory over a resilient Montenegro outfit at the weekend, despite the large number of casualties they had to deal with. A successfully converted penalty by Andrea Pirlo and a goal on debut by Giampaolo Pazzini were enough for the Azzurri to claim another three points.
The result meant that the Italians maintained their spot atop of Group 8, two points clear of their nearest opponents, the Republic of Ireland, the side which they will face this Wednesday.
Victory for Marcello Lippi’s men will see them widen the gap to five points over the Irish, meaning that their spot in the 2010 FIFA World Cup will be all but sealed, providing that there are no disasters ahead in their qualifying campaign.
Their most recent victory did come at a heavy cost, however, as the in-form Udinese skipper Antonio Di Natale suffered a serious knee injury against Montenegro, meaning that he is no chance of taking part in this match. In fact, the 31-year-old’s season is over as a result of the injury, meaning that his participation at the Confederations Cup in June is in serious doubt as well.
Despite the blow, Lippi will be able to call upon either Simone Pepe or the Villarreal star Giuseppe Rossi to feel the void left by Di Natale as the Azzurri go in search of what would be their most significant victory of the qualifying campaign to date.
A slip up in this match would not be the end of the world for the Italians, although if they are to emerge victorious and go five points clear, it would certainly ease the pressure and the growing weight of expectation on them.
Hoping For A Bit Of Luck
Ireland will be absolutely kicking themselves after they failed to capitalise on a convincing display against the Bulgarians at the weekend. Not only did they manage to score in the opening minute of play, they also scored an own goal to allow their opponents back into it. The game ended 1-1.
Despite the disappointing result, the Irish remain second in the group, just two points adrift of Italy. But this could all change this week, because, as previously mentioned, defeat would put them five points adrift of the Azzurri with just four matches to play.
Obviously if Giovanni Trapattoni’s men finish second in the group, their dreams of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup will not be over, as four of the second-placed sides in Europe are guaranteed a spot in the finals. However, the Irish will certainly be keen to avoid this if they can, as their record in the play-offs is far from encouraging.
It should be noted that the last time that the Republic of Ireland qualified as group winners for a major tournament was way back in 1987, when Jack Charlton's side progressed to Euro '88 in Germany. With this in mind, second place may be what they will have to settle for this time around, if their history is anything to go by.
The facts and figures are not in favour of the Irish heading into this top of the table clash. However, they are quietly confident of travelling to the Italian peninsula and grabbing a result. The coach has affirmed that his players will be out there to win this week, so if that is the case, then anything could happen.
March 28 v Montenegro (A) WON 2-0 (WCQ)
February 10 v Brazil (N) LOST 0-2 (Friendly)
November 19 v Greece (A) DREW 1-1 (Friendly)
October 15 v Montenegro (H) WON 2-1 (WCQ)
October 11 v Bulgaria (A) DREW 0-0 (WCQ)
Republic of Ireland
March 28 v Bulgaria (H) DREW 1-1 (WCQ)
February 11 v Georgia (H) WON 2-1 (WCQ)
November 19 v Poland (H) LOST 2-3 (Friendly)
October 15 v Cyprus (H) WON 1-0 (WCQ)
September 10 v Montenegro (A) DREW 0-0 (WCQ)
As was the case against the Montenegrins at the weekend, the Italians are obviously without a number of their stars through injury and team selection. The latest casualty is Di Natale, who will be out for the remainder of the season with the serious knee injury he picked up in Podgorica. It’s a big blow to Lippi and to the Azzurri; however, Rossi or Pepe should earn a start in his place.
Meanwhile, Giorgio Chiellini is expected to play despite being on the receiving end of a ball to the face in the corresponding fixture, a knock that led to bleeding from his already broken nose. The new boy Pazzini could also be set to make his first start in Azzurri colours, after his impressive debut just days ago.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Marco Amelia (Palermo), Morgan De Sanctis (Galatasaray)
Defenders: Salvatore Bocchetti (Genoa), Fabio Cannavaro (Real Madrid), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Andrea Dossena (Liverpool), Alessandro Gamberini (Fiorentina), Fabio Grosso (Olympique Lione), Marco Motta (Roma), Gianluca Zambrotta (Milan)
Midfielders: Matteo Brighi (Roma), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Pasquale Foggia (Lazio), Riccardo Montolivo (Fiorentina), Angelo Palombo (Sampdoria), Simone Pepe (Udinese), Andrea Pirlo (Milan)
Forwards: Antonio Di Natale (Udinese), Vincenzo Iaquinta (Juventus), Giampaolo Pazzini (Sampdoria), Fabio Quagliarella (Udinese), Giuseppe Rossi (Villarreal)
Possible Starting XI – (4-3-2-1): Buffon; Zambrotta, Cannavaro, Chiellini, Grosso; De Rossi, Pirlo, Brighi; Rossi, Quagliarella; Pazzini.
Republic of Ireland:
The Irish are in desperate need of all three points, however as was the case against the Bulgarians on the weekend, they will have to do it without one of their star players in Damien Duff, who will miss with a hamstring injury. Stephen Hunt should take his place in the midfield once again, as he did against the Bulgarians, whilst Shay Given is a certain starter. Aiden McGeady will also play, after fully overcoming the slight foot problem that almost saw him miss his nation’s most recent qualifier.
Goalkeepers: Shay Given (Manchester City), Dean Kiely (West Bromwich Albion), Kieren Westwood (Coventry City)
Defenders: Alex Bruce (Ipswich Town), Damien Delaney (Queens Park Rangers), Richard Dunne (Manchester City), Steve Finnan (Espanyol), Kevin Foley (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Stephen Kelly (Stoke City), Kevin Kilbane (Hull City), Paul McShane (Sunderland), Darren O'Dea (Celtic), John O'Shea (Manchester United)
Midfielders: Keith Andrews (Blackburn Rovers), Damien Duff (Newcastle), Darron Gibson (Manchester United), Stephen Hunt (Reading), Andy Keogh (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Aiden McGeady (Celtic), Liam Miller (Queens Park Rangers), Glenn Whelan (Stoke City)
Forwards: Kevin Doyle (Reading), Caleb Folan (Hull City), Noel Hunt (Reading), Robbie Keane (Tottenham Hotspur), Shane Long (Reading)
Possible Starting XI – (4-4-2): Given; McShane, Kilbane, Dunne, O’Shea; Whelan, Andrews, McGeady, Hunt; Doyle, Keane.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Italy – Giampaolo Pazzini
The Sampdoria hitman continued his brilliant run of form at the weekend when he grabbed the decisive goal just minutes after coming on as a substitute against Montenegro. His performance that night should be enough to see him make his first start for the Azzurri, meaning that the pressure will certainly intensify, as a lot will be expected of the 24-year-old by the passionate Bari crowd.
Republic of Ireland – Robbie Keane
The nation’s captain and highest ever goal-scorer will need to be at his absolute best if the Irish are to stun the Italians this week. His experience will be invaluable to the performance of his team on the night, and one would think that the Tottenham man will have to add to his tally of 37 goals if his side are to have any chance of victory. Ireland have never lost a match in 90 minutes when this man has scored.
It’s going to be a great battle between the top two sides in Group 8. Trapattoni has already declared that his team will go for glory against the world champions; however, one just gets the feeling that this will be a near impossible task for them. The Italians will be aware of the fact that three points will all but book their spot in the 2010 World Cup, so with this in mind, I feel that they will cruise to a comfortable victory in Bari this week.
Italy 2-0 Republic of Ireland
Adrian Del Monte, Goal.com