Kick-Off: Tuesday, August 10, 20:45 CET.
Upton Park, London, England.
The Future Is Now
The humiliating exit from the group stage at the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa marked the end of an era for Italy - the new epoch will commence on Tuesday, when under new coach Cesare Prandelli the Azzurri will take on African giants Ivory Coast.
The former Fiorentina tactician has already expressed his distinct difference in approach by calling up the hugely talented but temperamental and controversial Antonio Cassano. The Sampdoria trequartista was frozen out of the Italy team by former coach Marcello Lippi but now finds himself back in the Italy fold.
Inter striker Mario Balotelli has also been called up and so has the Brazilian-born naturalised Italian Amauri of Juventus. The absences of defender Fabio Cannavaro, midfielders Gennaro Gattuso and Mauro Camoranesi and striker Antonio Di Natale, among others for various reasons, underline a distinct inception of a new period in Italian football.
However, the pressure on Prandelli will be huge and Italy fans will be expecting a win as well as a good performance. The former World Cup winners' display in South Africa was uninspiring and although a number of key players such as Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo will be absent for Tuesday evening's game, a solid performance is imperative.
Given that there are a number of unproven but very talented young players in the 23-man squad called up by the 52-year-old, it will be interesting to see how the Azzurri perform on the pitch at Upton Park.
Recovering From Disappointment
The Ivory Coast were rated by many football pundits as being the dark horses in South Africa but the Elephants failed to get past a group stage which saw them matched up with Brazil, Portugal and North Korea. Moreover, Sven-Goran Eriksson, who was appointed the coach to lead the African giants in the 2010 World Cup finals, officially departed a few days back after his financial demands couldn't be met by the Ivorian FA.
However, former Ascoli player Francois Zahoui has been appointed as the new Ivory Coast coach and his first task will be to lead the Elephants to a triumph against Italy in Tuesday's friendly international. But the 47-year-old will have to do without key striker Didier Drogba, who is recuperating from groin surgery.
Also absent from the 26-man squad are Galatasaray midfielder Kader Keita, Monaco's Jean-Jacques Gosso and Maccabi Netanya goalkeeper Aristide Zogbo - all having been part of the Ivorian team in South Africa. The seven new players in the squad are Yannick Sagbo, Constant Djakpa, Emerse Fae, Kafoumba Coulibaly, Gilles Yapi-Yapo, Didier Konan Ya and Bakari Kone.
The absence of Drogba could prove to be vital for the Ivorians, but the presence of Didier Zokora, Yaya Toure, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Eboue and Salomon Kalou will be uplifting for the Elephants, who still remain a force to be reckoned with despite enduring a disappointing performance in the summer.
Latest reports suggest that goalkeeper Federico Marchetti has been sent back to Italy following an injury and that Antonio Mirante has been drafted into the squad as his replacement. This implies that Palermo custodian Salvatore Sirigu could start between the sticks for the Azzurri. Amauri, Balotelli and Cassano have been told by Prandelli that they will find themselves in the first XI and so could Simone Pepe, Daniele De Rossi and Angelo Palombo.
Probable Line-up (4-3-2-1): Sirigu, Motta, Bonucci, Chiellini, Molinaro; Pepe, De Rossi, Palombo; Balotelli, Cassano; Amauri
It will be interesting to see what formation Zahoui chooses against Italy on Tuesday. While the big guns - the Toure brothers, Zokora and Kalou - are expected to start, it is unlikely that the new coach will try something drastically different from what Erikssson did at the World Cup.
Probable Line-up (4-3-3): Barry, Demel, K. Toure, Zokora, Tiene; Eboue, Y. Toure, Tiote; Dindane, Kalou, Gervinho
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Antonio Cassano (Italy)
'Fantantonio' has been out of the Italy squad for the last two years but the former Roma and Real Madrid ace is back. One of the most natural trequartistas left on the planet, Cassano is going to be a key player against the Ivory Coast. Some suggest that the Sampdoria ace could have made a difference for the 2006 World Cup winners in South Africa, and now it is time for the 28-year-old to justify his inclusion in the Italy fold.
Salomon Kalou (Ivory Coast)
The 25-year-old had a good time against Manchester United in the Community Shield on Sunday despite ending up on the losing side. The Chelsea striker scored a good goal and also looked inspiring with his dribbles. Kalou will have to use his Premier League experience against what is essentially a talented but yet to be tested Italian defensive line.
Italy will be motivated to start the new era on a high but with several new players, they may not be exactly well-functioning. Moreover, the Ivory Coast too are venturing into a fresh new period and they will be keen on starting on a high as well. Prandelli's footballing brain should win out in the end, but it doesn't promise to be exactly an awe-inspiring performance from the Azzurri.
Italy 2-1 Ivory Coast