Italy against Ireland at the Stadio San Nicola tomorrow evening is no ordinary football game. Not only is this a match that will decide who assumes control of World Cup qualifying Group 8, with the Azzurri currently two points clear of ‘The Boys In Green’, but, there are numerous other sub-plots. The countries were involved in two famous World Cup clashes, in 1990 and 1994, while Ireland’s current manager is none other than the legendary Italian, Giovanni Trapattoni.
Carlo Garganese, a deputy editor and Italian football editor of Goal.com, has Italian parents, and currently lives in England. Peter Staunton is World Editor of Goal.com, was born and grew up in Ireland, lived in Italy, but currently resides in London.
Yesterday we brought you part one of this head-to-head - here now is the second and final part.
What is your prediction for Wednesday’s game?
Carlo: I have not been too impressed by Italy so far during this World Cup campaign, and we have been grinding out results. Nevertheless, we are stronger than Ireland in every area of the pitch, and should have a little bit too much for Trapattoni’s men. I don’t see Keane or Doyle troubling Chiellini and Cannavaro. Italy are good at set-pieces, a key weapon of the Irish. Italy to win 1-0 or 2-0.
Peter: I foresee a backs to the wall effort from the Irish, and I think we'll eek out a goalless draw. Italy are blunt up front, while we are not much of a goal-threat ourselves. More than ever, the focus will be on not conceding, and I see us negating the Azzurri.
What do you make of Antonio Cassano’s exclusion?
Carlo: Italy will still qualify without Cassano, and they will still probably beat Ireland, but they may struggle at the World Cup without him. Lippi is being very stubborn. The attack is crying out for creativity, as proved in the Brazil game, and it seems that this exclusion really is personal. Cassano is the most in-form Italian in Serie A, and among the most naturally talented in the world.
Peter: I think it's an absolute blessing for us. Cassano is among the top three players in Serie A bar none, and certainly the best Italian plying his trade at the moment. His awareness and prompting are incomparable and I think we are very lucky that he will not be playing in front of his home support in Bari. He is a difference-maker, a matchwinner, and Italy will be weaker for his absence.
Who is the key player for both teams?
Carlo: The key player for us is Andrea Pirlo, who was back to something close to his best against Montenegro. If he can dictate the game, it could be trouble for Ireland. If Chiellini performs like he usually does, then the Irish attacking threat will be easily nullified. The man to watch for the Irish is winger Aiden McGeady, who is electrifying when on top form and, with all due respect, deserves a bigger club than Celtic. However, he has been having some fitness problems recently.
Peter: The key player for ourselves will be, as he has been in the past, Shay Given. We tend to rely on the Manchester City goalkeeper in tough times, and I can see him facing a deluge. Shay is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. At the other end, Robbie Keane is the captain and talisman. He can make goals from nothing and is due a big game after a subdued Saturday. When he scores, we don't lose. For the Italians, they will look to Pirlo to set the tempo. It's not going to be a particularly quick Italian team, with Di Natale ruled out, and they will seek to exercise territorial and possession dominance.
Which players or areas of both teams could be considered as a weak-link?
Carlo: Our weakest area at the moment is in attack. None of our forwards are genuinely world class, and those who could have made the difference, like Cassano, have been snubbed. The 4-3-3 formation has also caused confusion, and the players appear uncomfortable in this system.
Ireland’s midfield looks really shaky. They are usually strong down the wings, but Damien Duff is injured, and McGeady is struggling. Both centre midfielders, Keith Andrews and Glenn Whelan, would not even make a Serie A relegation team, so Pirlo and De Rossi should take charge.
Peter: Our weakest area is our central midfield. We have Keith Andrews, playing in League Two last season, and Glenn Whelan, who is not an automatic starter for Stoke City. Ball retention is another big problem, we have no confidence in possession. The likes of Paul McShane are infinitely more comfortable tackling than passing. We could be passed to death and run ragged if we are not careful. Somebody needs to take the game by the scruff of the neck.
There is a lack of pace throughout the Italian number, and little room for a Plan B. No Cassano, no Giovinco, no Del Piero means little craft in the last third, and I feel Italy could be a little one-dimensional in front of goal if we baton down the hatches. McGeady has the pace and trickery to worry the full-backs too, so he'll need to be on his game.
Who do you most dislike from the opposition team, and why?
Carlo: I dislike no one from the current Ireland team. Roy Keane was not one of my favourites character-wise, although he was a world-beater on the pitch. Andy Townsend is the last Irishman who has really touched a nerve because he always says bad, and hilariously stupid, things about the Azzurri. But he is not even really Irish.
Peter: Lippi. Because he is depriving the world of seeing Cassano. His intransigence will cost Italy. Other than that, I dislike very few Italians in the squad. I'm a Roma fan and there is only one Lazio player - Pasquale Foggia - who probably won't even play.
Italy and Ireland are looking odds-on to finish in the top two places of Group 8, but who will win the pool?
Carlo: Italy will win the group comfortably. Looking at our remaining games, the opponents are so ordinary that I can see us winning every match apart from the away trip to Dublin where we may even be able to hand dear old Trapattoni a favour. Ireland won't win in Bulgaria, but they will still come second, and I really hope they make it to South Africa via the playoffs.
Peter: I think Italy will top the group, but I still fancy us to push them close. Bulgaria will slip up again elsewhere, with hope. But Italy, man for man, in terms of technique, experience, ability, are better than us. They deserve to top the listings, but we're no mugs either. I think we'll beat them in Croke Park but I can see us spilling a point or two here and there though. Bulgaria and Cyprus are tough places to go. All in all, I think that Antonio Di Natale's last minute winner against Cyprus last September will decide the top two.
How will your team do at the World Cup if you qualify? Who will win the World Cup?
Carlo: If the World Cup kicked off tomorrow, then Italy would struggle. The Azzurri are in transition, the 2006 protagonists are ageing, and Lippi has shown few signs of bringing through many of the exciting youngsters. Italy's current squad for this Ireland game cannot match the quality of Spain, Brazil and Argentina – and I believe one of these three nations will emerge victorious. I would love to see an all-South American final. Imagine Pele and Maradona going head-to-head!
Peter: If we qualify, we'll certainly get out of the groups. We've done it at 90, 94 and 2002. After that, it's a lottery, depending on who we get. Quarter-finals, with the rub of the green, could be possible. The winners will come from South America I think; the Europeans are uncomfortable away from the old continent. I'll plump for El Diego and Argentina. Their embarrassment of riches is frightening.
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