Coming off the back of a World Cup Qualifying draw with the Republic of Ireland in early April, la Nazionale will be hoping to avoid any embarrassment when they come up against the Emerald Isle’s neighbours, Northern Ireland, in a friendly in Pisa on Saturday evening. While Robbie Keane’s strike bagged the Republic a last-gasp equaliser and valuable point in a tense and incident-filled evening in Bari, the atmosphere surrounding the visit of Nigel Worthington’s men is likely to be decidedly different.
Along with a friendly against New Zealand, the clash with the Northern Irish may only have a bearing on how the Azzurri perform in South Africa with regards to this summer’s Confederations Cup and not their defence of the world championship in a year’s time. Taking respite from their position at the top of Qualifying Group 8, Marcello Lippi is ready to use the clash to test out a plethora of fringe players while Northern Ireland plan to do likewise.
Both countries have named a number of rookies within their squads, Lippi leaving out 13 established names with eight untested and uncapped Azzurri hopefuls drafted in. The Italian Tactician has however kept faith with veterans Fabio Grosso and Gennaro Gattuso, who boast a combined total of 106 caps, to lead out his young squad (who combined only possess a meagre 47 caps).
Expect some young guns to try and play themselves on to the South Africa-bound plane for the forthcoming Confederations Cup with Lippi set to name the last 10 members of his squad on Thursday. In a similar vein, Northern Ireland Coach Worthington is also planning to use the friendly as an opportunity to offer a number of regular starters a breather and offer a number of hopefuls a run-out. Following April’s impressive 1-0 home win against Slovenia, the former Norwich City Manager has named as many as 10 budding youngsters in his travelling party. Only record-goalscorer David Healy (73 caps) and captain Damian Johnson (51 caps) have stepped out more than five times in the green and white of their country before Saturday’s match at the Arena Garibaldi.
The baby-faced nature of this encounter offers echoes of the last clash between the two countries, when a Sammy McIlroy-led Northern Ireland outfit, brimming with debutants, was turned over 2-0 by an equally inexperienced Italian side in Campobasso in 2003. A spirited performance from McIlroy’s men, who handed-out six debuts during the match and had gone 882 minutes without finding the back of the net, ultimately proved to no avail as goals from Bernardo Corradi – then of Lazio – and Marco Delvecchio secured a win for Giovanni Trapattoni’s team in the Stadio Romagnoli.
While the 2003 clash was played out in the relative tranquility of Campobasso, both sides head towards the far more volatile surroundings of Pisa for this year’s match-up. After watching their beloved Pisa Calcio relegated from Serie B to the Lega Pro Prima Divisone following a 1-0 home defeat to Brescia, Pisa ultras stormed the ground and banged on the home team dressing room before turning their frustrations on the national team. They issued a statement indicating they would not welcome the arrival of the Serie A stars after their own lifeblood had just suffered the ignominy of relegation.
The match is unlikely to be a walk in the park for the inexperienced Azzurri, with Northern Ireland now ranked as high as 27th in the world after languishing in the mid-100s as little as five years ago. Healy, though almost anonymous at Sunderland this season, remains Northern Ireland’s most potent threat in attack and is likely to pose Lippi’s team their biggest problems.
Northern Ireland face a long wait after this match-up before their next programmed fixture which sees them host a friendly against Israel at the boisterous and foreboding Windsor Park in early August. Following that, it is back to the arduous task of World Cup qualification, with Northern Ireland currently sitting at the top of World Cup Qualifying Group 3 ahead of both the Czech Republic and the much-improved Slovakia. Despite having played two games more than most, Worthington’s men can edge closer to their first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup with a win away in Poland.
Against a resurgent Northern Irish side, who managed to land a historic 2-1 victory over their hosts in the 1958 World Cup, and in what could prove a boisterous atmosphere in Pisa, it could add up to a pressurised evening for the Azzurri as many of the squad look to prove themselves and persuade Lippi they have the steel and grit to be worthy of contention for his long-term plans.