By Mark Robinson
Italy stand on the threshold of elimination from Euro 2004 this evening as they face Bulgaria in the historic university town of Guimaraes.
Only a victory, and the hope that Denmark and Sweden fail to produce a high scoring draw in Group C’s other match tonight, will be enough to ensure that Giovanni Trapattoni’s much vaunted squad do not follow this evening’s opponents through the first-round exit door.
Tonight’s Group C encounter in the Estadio Dom Alfonso Henriques, named after Portugal’s first King, will see Bulgaria playing only for pride against the Italians. Defeats to both Sweden and Denmark mean it is impossible for them to progress to the quarter finals, and their coach, Plamen Markov, will be hoping that his players can take advantage of possible Italian nerves and give their supporters something to cheer before their journey home.
The last competitive match between the two nations took place under much different circumstances, as two goals from Roberto Baggio clinched the 1994 World Cup semi-final 2-1 in Italy’s favour. There are no survivors from either side in tonight’s line-ups, though midfielder Daniel Borimirov was in the Bulgarian squad for USA 1994 but did not make it onto the pitch.
Italy coach Giovanni Trapattoni has a number of problems to address ahead of the game. In addition to the possibility of having up to six names unavailable for this evening’s match, Trapattoni has been forced to contend with the Italian media besieging his squad with almost unprecedented venom.
Not since 1982’s World Cup triumph in Spain, when the Italians imposed a complete press ban from their training camp before lifting the title, have relations between players, staff and the media been at such a low.
Inaccurate reports of a heated argument between striker Christian Vieri and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon following Friday’s 1-1 draw with Sweden in Porto have been the catalyst for an aggressive response from the squad, with both Buffon and Vieri quick to lambast the Italian press. Vieri has stated that he will not be talking to them again during the tournament.
“You massacre us from morning to night,” the Internazionale striker raged on Sunday evening, following reports that he and Buffon had come to blows.
“This is the last day that I speak to you. You can say what you want about me as a player, but when you offend me as a person the line must be drawn.”
Buffon agreed with his team-mate, again citing the reports as a personal slur on him and Vieri.
“This stuff is all wrong,” the Juventus goalkeeper said.
“If there is criticism on how we play then fair enough, but personal attacks and false reports are just too offensive.”
Vieri is struggling with a knee injury ahead of tonight’s match, while defensive midfielders Simone Perrotta and Cristiano Zanetti are also struggling with muscle strains. Of the three players, Zanetti looks the most doubtful and Trapattoni will be hopeful that Vieri and Perrotta can pass late fitness tests.
The former Bayern Munich and Juventus coach will certainly be without three of his squad, however, regardless of any miracles in the treatment room. Skipper Fabio Cannavaro, star playmaker Francesco Totti and Milan’s Gennaro Gattuso are all suspended and will definitely miss out. Totti serves the second game of his three match ban for gross unsporting conduct, while both Cannavaro and Gattuso picked up their second yellow cards of the finals against Sweden and will also sit out the game.
Inter’s Marco Materazzi and Parma’s Matteo Ferrari are pushing hard for Cannavaro’s place in central defence, and Trapattoni is delaying his decision on which one will get the vote until just before kick off. Materazzi’s experience will probably see him edging out his 25 year-old colleague, with the Inter man having gained tournament experience at both Euro 2000 and the World Cup in 2002.
Italy have been praised by the media around Europe, if not their own country, for their first half performance against Sweden on Friday night. The reshaped forward line of Vieri, Alessandro Del Piero and the 21 year-old goalscorer Antonio Cassano looked mobile, skillful and full of ideas as Italy claimed a 1-0 lead at the break. Trapattoni will therefore be hoping that Vieri can indeed prove his fitness so that the combination can continue.
The inclusion of Milan’s Andrea Pirlo against the Swedes was also a positive for the Italians, and he is certain to keep his place in the centre of a three man midfield. With Perrotta keeping his place if he proves his fitness, the other midfield berth will, in Gattuso’s absence, be occupied by Mauro Camoranesi or Stefano Fiore of Lazio. If given the start, Fiore will be looking to put some indifferent performances for the Azzurri behind him after previously starring at Euro 2000.
Trapattoni was widely questioned for his substitutions on Friday night, and Sweden certainly profited from them by fighting their way back into the game before Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 85th minute equaliser. The coach was, however, quick to blame fatigue rather than take the responsibility himself.
“We tried to win the game and put pressure on them all over the pitch,” said Trapattoni.
“Then Sweden started to push forward and we were too tired to keep on attacking. We played at an extremely high tempo in the first half, and that took its toll.”
Defender Alessandro Nesta was quick to defend his coach, again criticising the Italian media for their traditional hostility towards the coaches and players.
“I have played at major tournaments and it is always the same,” Nesta revealed.
“The coach is criticised whatever he does. It happened also with Dino Zoff (at Euro 2000) and we just have to work hard and give it our best shot.”
Both Trapattoni and his players are aware that Italy’s fate is not entirely in their own hands. A high scoring draw of 2-2 or more between Denmark and Sweden 30 minutes along the road in Porto would make Italy’s result an irrelevance. It is clearly a scenario that the Italians fear, but they have vowed to stay focussed on their own task this evening.
“We must beat Bulgaria, it is the only thing that counts,” said Materazzi.
“We need to play to win and get to five points,” insisted Buffon. “Then we’ll digest what the other teams did in their game. We cannot worry about that until after the match.”
Trapattoni praised the ethics of the Danish and Swedish people, claiming that neither side would be looking to ‘fix’ their result tonight. He also pointed to the probability that, as geographical and historical rivals, both teams would be looking for victory.
“Both countries have a great sporting ethic and I’m sure they will attempt to beat each other as neighbours normally like to do,” claimed the coach.
Bulgarian coach Markov has selection problems of his own as his team look for their first goals and first points of the finals in their last match.
Suspensions to captain Stilian Petrov and centre back Roesen Kirilov, together with an injury to fullback Ivailo Petkov, means that he will be forced to reshuffle his pack for tonight’s clash. Predrag Pazin will return in defence to replace Kirilov after missing the Denmark game through injury.
AEK Athens midfielder Milen Petkov should get his first start of the finals in place of his suspended skipper. Markov may also hand an international debut to 18 year-old Valeri Bojinov of Italian club Lecce, though it will probably be from the bench.
Markov claimed that his squad were eager to leave Portugal on a positive note, having revealed his anger at his players’ behaviour towards the end of Friday’s defeat by Denmark.
“I was ashamed of my players’ reaction in the last minutes against the Danes and we deserved our bookings and suspensions,” said the coach.
“In football, as in life, there are defeats as well as victories, so it is important to learn how to lose.”
“We want to make a better impression, prove that we can play better football and leave Portugal proud,” said Markov of tonight’s game.
“It is also about proving that this generation of young Bulgarian footballers have a bright future.”
“We’re confident that if we really show our worth we can achieve a positive result. We are looking towards Russia’s win over Greece in their last game as our inspiration.”
Markov, whose contract with the Bulgarian FA expires next month, refused to comment on speculation surrounding his future.
Bulgaria: Zdravkov; Ivanov, Pazin, Zagorcic, Stoianov; Peev, Hristov, M Petkov, M Petrov; Jankovic, Berbatov
Italy: Buffon; Panucci, Nesta, Materazzi, Zambrotta; Fiore, Pirlo, Perrotta; Cassano, Vieri, Del Piero
Referee: Valentin Ivanov (Rus)