Italy welcome back former Coach Giovanni Trapattoni to his native country this week, as the top two in Group Eight face off in a mouth watering clash. The well-travelled veteran will lead out his current troops at the Stadio San Nicola in Bari on Wednesday evening hoping to halt Marcello Lippi’s march to South Africa.
The Azzurri opened up a two point gap at the top of Group Eight over Wednesday’s opponents, but victory last time out was hardly impressive. The win at European minnows Montenegro offered little in the way of excitement and flair, but Lippi left Eastern Europe satisfied with a vital three points plus the added bonus of a clean sheet. Two major positives on what was a tricky away day for la Nazionale, but that was arguably where they ended.
Lippi has still yet to inject any attacking impetus into his side and the bluntness in which his frontline has operated in recent matches is becoming worrying. But for an excellent Gianluigi Buffon save and a moment of pure madness (and stupidity) from the Montenegrin defender guilty of that mindless handball, the Azzurri may well have earned just a point instead of all three, and then Lippi’s selection and tactics would really be under scrutiny. As it is, Italian fans and media alike are baffled by some of Lippi’s choices. No Antonio Cassano the obvious one, while the wide men of Fabio Quagliarella and Antonio Di Natale have flattered to deceive on numerous occasions with many onlookers of the belief their time is up and their chance gone. The latter endured an early exit at the weekend after suffering a bad knee injury, leaving the Udinese man certain to miss the upcoming clash with the Irish. However, his replacement, Simone Pepe did little to make the spot his own, despite supplying a pinpoint cross for Giampaolo Pazzini’s debut goal.
The public seem to favour the less experienced but in-form Giuseppe Rossi for one of the wide berths, a role the Villarreal forward does not favour but at the moment is his only hope in the current 4-3-3 system. Meanwhile, Pazzini’s flying debut has seen fans hoping to see his name on the teamsheet on Wednesday, dislodging the mediocre Vincenzo Iaquinta in the role of big striker. Whether this comes to fruition however is a different matter, with Lippi notoriously stubborn with his selections and methods – Cassano the living example of this. The rest of the side looks certain to remain unchanged with the back four looking solid enough on Saturday and the midfield trio of Angelo Palombo, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi doing a decent job, despite the clear lack of creativity.
Meanwhile, Ireland head into the game on the back of a disappointing home draw to Bulgaria. If Trapattoni wants to book his flight for South Africa next summer, that was a vital game where three points were paramount. A Richard Dunne header in the opening minutes looked like sending the Irish joint top with the Azzurri but Trapattoni’s defensive demons came to the fore once more as he proceeded to sit on his early lead. His team were punished, albeit by themselves (a Kevin Kilbane own goal canceling out Dunne’s early strike), and the former Azzurri Tactician was left counting the costs of his cautious approach. No doubt his team talk on Wednesday might well include the words “park” and “bus”, but Ireland has enough threat in the attacking third to hurt the Italian backline. Former Inter man Robbie Keane will want to show the Italian public and Nerazzurri tifosi just what he is capable of following his ill-fated spell in Milan early on in his career. Lippi was the man who brought the current Ireland and Tottenham captain to the Peninsula and but for the sacking of the current Azzurri Coach, Keane may well have gone on to be a huge hit after impressing in early outings. But it was not meant to be and is history now, although Keane will surely want to showcase his talents in front of his former Coach.
Ireland has another main danger man in Aiden McGeady, but the Celtic winger is an injury doubt. Waiting in the wings are Andrew Keogh of Wolves and Shane Long of Reading, should McGeady miss out. Trapattoni has hinted at that being the only change to the team that drew against Bulgaria so a 4-4-2 is likely to be employed, although the onus will be on defending. The Irish boast an energetic team and will look to unsettle their superior opponents. Stephen Hunt is a tireless and tenacious winger while Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews will boundlessly get about the pitch but will struggle to keep possession of the ball. Kevin Doyle and Keane will hassle the Azzurri back-four and even though they have both struggled for goals for their respective domestic teams this year, they are both deadly finishers.
It will be up to la Nazionale to break down their opponents who will undoubtedly sit deep and try to soak up the ensuing pressure, so Lippi’s men will have to play through their opponents. Long balls will simply be eaten up by the forcible Dunne and John O’Shea, but the Azzurri may well find joy in the wide areas. Kevin Kilbane is not a natural defender and can be caught out at left-back while Paul McShane leaves a lot to be desired on the opposite side. Responsibility will therefore lay at the feet of the two wide men to exploit this and cause plenty of problems, while the two full-backs in Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta should be able to display their attacking qualities as Ireland’s wingers will have more defensive duties than attacking motives on their mind.
Expect an attack vs. defence scenario, as Ireland look for a battling point to stop the Azzurri running away with top spot, leaving Lippi to learn much of his side’s attacking qualities and creative ability. Arguably Cassano would be perfect for this situation, but Lippi has kept faith with his squad and stuck to his guns in leaving the Sampdoria man at home. He will however be nearby with the game taking place in Bari, and fans are rumoured to be letting their feelings known on their hero’s exclusion. Lippi’s only answer can be a victory.