Paddy Agnew looks ahead to Italy facing an Ireland side that must play the game of their lives.
Today’s first round Euro clash in Lille between Italy and Ireland presents a tantalising exercise in the importance of motivation, or lack of. In theory, the game does not matter a damn to Italy, who can even afford to lose, secure in the knowledge that they will still top the group. Win, lose or draw, Italy now head to Saint Denis in Paris for a mouthwatering clash with Spain, a rerun of the 2012 final in Warsaw.
For Martin O’Neill and Ireland, it is a very different business. For them, this is “la partita della vita” (the game of their lives). With just one point from their opening two games, thanks to a workman-like 1-1 draw against an uninspired Sweden, Ireland desperately need to get something out of this. In reality, their task is simple. All they have to do is beat Italy to have a chance of going through as one of the four best, third-place finishers. Easy, really.
With Italy already qualified and with coach Conte certain to ring widespread changes, leaving out five if not six of his six yellow-carded players (Buffon, Bonucci, Chiellini, Thiago Motta, De Rossi and Eder), this will clearly be an unorthodox, untried Italy line-up. So then, will the combination of Italian team changes and contrasting motivations offer Ireland a golden opportunity to get their show back on the road following their 3-0 drubbing in Bordeaux by Belgium?
Speaking from the Azzurri training camp in Montpellier, midfielder Daniele De Rossi, one of the key, yellow-carded players certain to be rested, does not think so. Asked by World Soccer if Ireland’s greater motivation could lead to an upset, he said:
“It could be a problem but it shouldn’t be…I mean the Irish are well known for being the sort of side that gives its all. We played them four years ago (at exactly the same point in the finals tournament) when they came into the game with two defeats and no points. Yet, they battled and battled and made it very difficult for us, whilst their fans were screaming and shouting as if we were playing the final itself…
“It was lovely to see fans behave like that and it serves as a reminder that we can take nothing for granted in this game. We have got to be careful not to find ourselves making a “brutta figura” (total mess-up) and we certainly won’t be offering them any presents…
“Then, this game is important for those guys who have not yet played, they get a chance to make a point…I mean lads, we’re footballers and we all want to play”
One of those very guys, reserve Juventus striker Michele Zaza, shares De Rossi’s viewpoint enthusiastically. He hopes to cause problems for coach Conte by having a good game, taking over from where he left off against Sweden where he came on as a substitute. In that game, it was his header following a quickly taken throw by Giorgio Chiellini that set up the chance for that late winner from Italo-Brazilian striker Eder. With disarming honesty, Zaza adds:
“My pass was’nt the best thing there, full merit goes to Eder for the manner in which he controlled the ball, dribbled past two defenders and took his chance…”
Given their happy situation, Conte may well make as many as nine changes from the side which started in the 1-0 win against Sweden in Toulouse. Not only will he drop the yellow carded players but he will also rest others with a view to the long run. Thus not only Eder misses out today but so also his hardworking strike partner, Southampton man, Graziano Pellè. Therefore we should see a new strike force of Zaza and Torino man Ciro Immobile.
Italy will also field a brand new defence with Paris Saint Germain’s Salvatore Sirigiu replacing captain Gigi Buffon and with Man United’s Matteo Darmian and West Ham’s Angelo Ogbonna replacing Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. Further changes to the Italian defensive formation will come through the replacement of De Rossi, probably by the experienced Thiago Motta, who will play in De Rossi’s defensive midfield role.
Even though Thiago Motta is also one of the yellow carded players, Conte may opt to field him in De Rossi’s role because he will want at least one familiar wise old head in what is otherwise a totally unprecedented midfield. This means that Andrea Barzagli is the only survivor from the normal first choice defence.
In midfield, the changes are equally radical. Lazio winger, Antonio Candreva is suffering from a groin strain and is rested, being replaced by AS Roma utility man Alessandro Florenzi, wide on the right. On the other side of midfield, another Roma player Stephan El Shaarawy is likely to step in for Emmanuele Giaccherini, who is also rested, with Thiago Motta being flanked in central midfield by defensive Juventus man, Stefano Sturaro and Fiorentina’s exciting Federico Bernardeschi.
As for Ireland, Martin O’Neill has promised that his side will throw everything at Italy, by way of thanking their loyal fans. Will the Irish spirit prove enough to stage an upset against an Italy “B” in a game that, at least partly, does not matter to the Azzurri? Answer coming up in Lille tonight:
Italy: (3-5-2) Sirigu; Barzagli, Ogbonna, Darmian; Florenzi, Bernardeschi, Thiago Motta, Sturaro, El Shaarawy; Immobile, Zaza
Ireland (4-2-3-1) Randolph; Coleman, O’Shea, Duffy, Brady; Quinn, Whelan; Hendrik, Long, Hoolihan; Murphy