Stop all the clocks. The defending champions are boarding the plane for South Africa next June thanks to Alberto Gilardino’s last-gasp equaliser in the cauldron of Croke Park on Saturday evening. The Azzurri, after having seemingly fallen from the position at the top of the global game, find themselves in the luxurious position of having qualified with a game to spare and may use the opportunity against Cyprus in Parma on Wednesday to introduce some of the fringe players that have not factored as hugely in Marcello Lippi’s successful qualification campaign.
Leaving it desperately late in the 2-2 draw at the death in Dublin, Lippi can take some heart from the way the team fronted up to the challenge of the physical Irish. Lippi has even dared in the aftermath to jest at the fact that the last times that Italy had managed to qualify from their group with a game to spare was in 1982 and 2006, and we all know what happened to the Azzurri in those World Cup years. Confidence has seemingly returned to the Nazionale set-up, which had fallen to its lowest point after a series of unimpressive showings since the disaster of the Confederations Cup.
However, it is not all smiles in the Mediterranean. Cyprus, currently fourth in the group, find themselves entering a dead rubber of a game, as the Cypriots are unable to qualify and will be playing with the only incentive that they can oust Bulgaria from third in the group with an unlikely win at the Stadio Ennio Tardini. This would be a double kick-in-the-teeth delivered by Cyprus to the Eastern Europeans, as it was the halting 4-1 drubbing that Cyprus meted out to Bulgaria in Larnaca at the weekend that stopped Berbatov and co.’s push for a play-off spot.
A brace from Konstantinos Charlampidis gave Cyprus a quick two-goal lead against a Bulgarian team which went into Saturday’s clash still capable of pipping Ireland to second spot and the subsequent playoffs. Despite a sweetly struck reply from Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov, goals from Michalis Constantinou and Stathis Alfonetis added the icing to a famous victory in the sparsely populated Neo GSP Stadium and gave Cyprus their second win of the campaign.
In all likelihood, Bulgaria will best Georgia in Sofia on Wednesday and affirm their position as third in the group. However, this does not overshadow the fact that Cyprus have proved to be an awkward team to beat for many countries throughout the group stages, but they have struggled to convert this into anything meaningful. Cyprus only managed one other victory – over Georgia – during the course of qualification, and garnered the majority of their nine points from draws with Montenegro both home and away and in Georgia.
Looking to the squad for Wednesday, there is still controversy surrounding the Nazionale captain Fabio Cannavaro and his supposedly accidental injection of a banned substance to cure a bee sting. At the weekend, the Italian Olympic’s Committee (CONI) claimed that the Juve centre-half should be cleared due to the circumstances in which the cortisone was used and, if that comes to fruition, then the 36-year-old could potentially return to the fold at the heart of the Italian defence.
Elsewhere, Lippi’s ‘fantasista’ Gianluigi Buffon has revealed a need for knee surgery on a persistent meniscus issue. However, the ageless shot-stopper could feature for his fifth start of the successful campaign after explaining that he intends to put off surgery until after Juventus have locked head with Inter Milan at the start of December. Claudio Marchisio is still seen as a doubt but Angelo Palombo may miss out simply on the basis of form, with the Sampdoria holding midfielder giving a competent yet unimpressive performance against the Irish.
This tie seems a long time on from when the two sides met in September 2008 in the opening game of qualification. It took two goals from Antonio Di Natale to cancel out a response from Alfonetis to give Italy victory in Lanarca, with the Cypriots having out-played the Azzurri for long periods of the clash and the outcome was dependent on a Di Natale strike deep into stoppage time. The win would prove pivotal in getting Italy’s campaign for the defence of their crown in South Africa off to the start that was expected, and eyes will now be fixed firmly on June once the group rounds-up on Wednesday night.