Last month’s friendly encounter at the Emirates Stadium in London pitted two of the greatest footballing nations head to head. Even though the game was labelled as a friendly, Brazil vs. Italy will always be more than that. It is an entrenched battle against two formidable foes where the victor will possess huge bragging rights over the other. It is the kings of offence vs. the kings of defence, flair vs. tactics. That cold Febuary night demonstrated the current superiority of the Seleção handing Marcello Lippi’s side a 2-0 defeat and in the process ending the Azzurri Tactician’s run of 31 matches without defeat. It was a result that showcased many weaknesses in Lippi’s team, weaknesses that need to be addressed before two crucial upcoming World Cup Qualifying matches.
The first of those two matches will be game five of Italy’s qualifying campaign against Montenegro. This weekend, Lippi will take his Italian boys to the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, where the two teams will meet up at the Stadion Pod Goricom. La Nazionale should have no problems in grabbing the three points that are at stake against the Brave Falcons. On paper this matchup seems to be a forgone conclusion but with the Azzurri’s historic struggles against sides from the former Yugoslavia there could more than meets the eye in this one.
The reverse fixture against these two was played out in mid-October at the Stadio Via del Mare in Lecce where La Nazionale huffed and puffed their way to a 2-1 win over the Balkan side. An Alberto Aquilani brace sandwiched around a Mirko Vucinic strike in the first half hour of the game saw the Blues bag three points and gain sole possession of first place in the group. Zoran Filipovic’s pesky Montenegran side put forth a decent display against the reigning World Cup champions, showing on their day they can certainly give some bigger sides a run for their money and could have easily salvaged a point had Montenegro captain Mirko Vucinic capitalized on a Daniele De Rossi mistake but instead drove his shot straight towards the body of Marco Amelia in the Azzurri goal.
The Italians currently top Group 8 but only on goal difference. Their ten points from four games are equal to those of Giovanni Trappatoni’s Ireland team whom they will play on Wednesday night in Bari in a clash against the two of the greatest Italian Coaches in the modern era. Saturday’s game against the former Yugoslav Republic will serve as sort of a Litmus test for the 60-year-old seeing what changes, if any, need to be made to his team ahead of the crucial tie against the Irish. Nonetheless qualification remains firmly on track for the Italians as the likes of Bulgaria, Cyprus and Georgia are unlikely to pose too much of a threat to the boys in Blue, so chances are maximum points from the springtime double header will have the Azzurri booking their tickets early to South Africa in 2010.
Marcelo Lippi will hand Genoa’s Salvatore Bocchetti, Roma’s Marco Motta and Samp’s Giampaolo Pazzini their debut calls for the senior side. Matteo Brighi returns to the squad for the first time since Giovanni Trappatoni handed him his debut back in 2002 and Lazio’s Pasquale Foggia also makes the cut. But the big news is that Sampdoria star Antonio Cassano has again been overlooked by Lippi. Many thought his miraculous form at the Marassi would have been enough to convince Lippi to give the 26-year-old a chance but his latest snub provokes thoughts of whether the former Real Madrid man will ever feature in a Lippi-led Azzurri side. Let us not make the exclusion of Cassano overshadow his strike partner’s call-up. Giampaolo Pazzini has been on a tear of late and has been an absolute revelation at the Marassi and his call-up to the senior side is more than well deserved. The former U-21 star could be a load to handle for the inexperienced Montenegran backline with his clever movement around the box and could potentially cause all sort of nightmares for the Montenegran defence. Apart from the inclusions of Motta and Bocchetti, the Azzurri backline remains very much the same as it did against the friendly against Brazil, with the exception of the returning Giorgio Chiellini. The midfield has not undergone any radical changes with Brighi, Sampdoria’s Angelo Palombo and Foggia the only tweaks. Udinese’s attacking duo of Antonio Di Natale and Fabio Quagliarella retain their places as does Juve’s Vincenzo Iaquinta and Villarreal’s Giuseppe Rossi. Alberto Gilardino is not fit to make it after suffering an injury with Fiorentina last Sunday.
The Montenegrin national football team is one of the newest footballing nations in the world. Having formed after the 2006 FIFA World Cup where they split ties with Serbia and went on and started competing as an independent nation playing their first official match on 24th March 2007, a friendly against Hungary. Although they do not boast a squad with much quality, with many of its national players plying their trades in many different Eastern Europeans leagues around the world, there are three names that stand out from the bunch: captain and all-time top scorer Mirko Vucinic, Simon Vukcevic and Stevan Jovetic of Roma, Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina respectively. It is quite evident that Roma hitman Mirko Vucinic is the best player in the squad and one that will most likely pose the most threat to the Azzurri backline, sadly though for the Balkan side he will not take part in the game against the country where he makes his fortunes as he is suspended for the tie. This means Head Coach Zoran Filipovic has turned to Fiorentina’s 19-year-old Stevan Jovetic to lead the line against the World Cup holders in the absence of captain Vucinic. Jovetic has yet to score for Fiorentina this season but has shown enough promise to be a very successful striker in the future for the Viola. The 19-year-old is widely regarded as one of Europe’s most exciting young talents, and he has already scored three goals in just five outings for his national side. He has been given a big responsibility by his Coach and don ot think for a second his is not relishing the chance of showing his true potential against Marcello Lippi’s experienced defence.
A couple of games into the campaign and already Filipovic’s youthful squad have shown great promise. They drew both of their games against Bulgaria and Ireland in September and made it difficult for the Azzurri back in October. Furthermore they remain undefeated in their last five games recording two wins and three draws. So despite their low FIFA ranking they can still put up a good spirited fight against most sides and to date have not yet been swept aside in their short history.
Despite all the promise the Montenegrin’s have shown it is very much unlikely that the Azzurri won’t return home with three points in the bag and as the most famous player in their history, Dejan Savicevic, stated that it will need a miracle for his country to beat Italy. Lippi’s side knows that the Balkans cannot be underestimated and complacency must not sneak into the players otherwise we could see a rude awakening for the Italians.