By Mark Robinson
Giovanni Trapattoni’s Italy will be looking to make the headlines for the right reasons as they take on Group C leaders Sweden, so impressive in hammering Bulgaria 5-0 on Monday, at Porto’s Dragao Stadium.
Italian fans will be hoping for something to cheer about following their lacklustre performance in Monday’s 0-0 draw with Denmark and the furore following superstar playmaker Francesco Totti’s three match ban for spitting at Danish midfielder Christian Poulsen.
Totti, found guilty of ‘gross unsporting conduct’ by UEFA at a three-hour hearing on Thursday morning, will only return to action should Italy make the semi finals. Tonight’s match against a strong Swedish unit will go far in determining whether his reappearance in the competition’s latter stages is a possibility.
The 65-year-old Trapattoni has been working hard to shield his players from the fuss surrounding Totti’s ban, and knows that anything but complete focus and concentration on this evening’s game may result in yet further pain for his team.
The veteran Italian coach is widely tipped to reshuffle both personnel and tactics in attempt to cover for Totti’s absence and also in the hope of producing a better performance from his players.
Having finished as runners up at Euro 2000 in Holland and Belgium, Italian hopes were high of going one better this time around, but the result and performance against the Danes has tempered optimism amongst fans and press alike.
Trapattoni fielded a 4-2-3-1 formation on Monday afternoon, but failure to break down the well organised Danes is likely to prompt a rethink. This evening the Italians seem set to field a more orthodox 4-3-3 system against Sweden, who will enter the match full of confidence after their comprehensive victory against Bulgaria.
“There will be no repetition of the game against Denmark,” the former Juventus and Bayern Munich coach predicted.
“We will see a different Italy. We will show our true potential – we must bring out our pride and increase our performances, both individually and as a team.”
The main casualties, Totti aside, are likely to be Simone Perrota and Mauro Camoranesi, neither of whom performed with any particular merit against the Danes.
Milan’s Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo are expected to replace Perrota and Camoranesi in a three man midfield, with Inter’s Cristiano Zanetti tipped to keep his place – thus making Italy’s midfield an exclusively Milanese one tonight. Pirlo’s creativity will probably see him deployed in the centre of the trio, with Zanetti and Gattuso being asked to do the majority of the groundwork either side of him.
The hard working Gattuso was one of the only players singled out for praise by Trapattoni after he came off the bench against Denmark, and he will add extra bite to the Italian midfield.
Alessandro Del Piero of Juventus will continue on the left side of the attack, despite his reluctance to play there and his quiet performance on Monday afternoon. He wil be partnered on the opposite flank by the much vaunted Antonio Cassano of Roma, who is likely to be promoted in place of his club-mate Totti.
Just 17 when he burst onto the Serie A scene at his hometown club Bari, Cassano has long been burdened with the tag of Italian football’s ‘golden boy’. A move to Roma, for what was then a record deal for a teenager, saw him blossom under recently departed coach Fabio Capello and he will be desperate to take his chance on the big stage.
A volatile character both on and off the pitch, Cassano has often found himself in hot water with both club and national coaches as he has publicly vented his frustration at a lack of playing time. This evening’s game should give him the chance to showcase his talents at last, and Trapattoni is likely to give both him and Del Piero licence to roam either side of central striker Christian Vieri.
Vieri will be hoping for more chances this evening that he enjoyed against Denmark, but he has been quick to warn his team-mates that a real test lies in store in the shape of Sweden.
“Sweden played a great game against Bulgaria and Henrik Larsson is a great striker,” he told a packed press conference on Wednesday.
“It’s not written anywhere that Italy must win. There are other teams as strong as us here. At this level just a few details can decide the result of a game.”
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who was impressive against the Danes, was also wary of the attacking threat posed by the Swedes and warned that his team-mates will need to raise their game this evening. He will line up this evening in front of an unchanged back four, one of the competition’s most experienced.
“I thought Bulgaria played well on Monday until Henrik Larsson scored his two second half goals – him, Ljungberg and Ibrahimovic are a big threat to us,” he declared.
“I prefer to see the glass as half full rather than half empty,” said Buffon, referring to the 0-0 draw with Denmark.
“The fact that we didn’t lose to a team that caused us so many problems is a bonus in my opinion. The defence played really well, but we will have to raise our game this evening – there is no doubt about that.”
Joint Swedish coaches Lars Lagerback and Tommy Soderberg were fulsome in their praise of their team’s result against Bulgaria, but have been insisting to the squad that there is much work still to do if they are to progress to the knockout stages.
With Teddy Lucic hopeful of recovering from a rib injury, Sweden are tipped to remain unchanged after such a convincing win. The pre-match talk in the Swedish camp has therefore not been of selection dilemmas but of the need to concentrate and stay focussed against the dangerous Italians.
“In the second half against Bulgaria everything went well, but there are a couple of things we will have to work on ahead of the Italy match,” insisted Lagerback on Wednesday.
“We had some problems in our defence and I don’t think we can allow the Italians that much space on Friday.”
Sweden’s headline-making result on Monday was the second biggest win in the history of the European Championships but Arsenal midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, who opened the scoring in Lisbon, is under no illusions about tonight’s clash.
“Just because we won 5-0 and Italy could only draw doesn’t mean we become favourites. It will be a different game against Italy. Their team is class through and through,” explained Ljungberg.
“But we don’t feel any pressure and will keep our feet on the ground. We know that if we play well we’ll be able to get a result.”
The Swedes have also been quick to play down the absence of Totti, claiming that Italy have more than enough talent in their squad to compensate for his loss. Despite Trapattoni’s declarations, the Swedes also indicated that they weren’t expecting Italy to ring the changes this evening.
“Totti is a superb player, a world-class player, so of course the fact that he can’t play is a tough blow for the Italians,” joint coach Lagerback said yesterday.
“But any player who comes in and fills his slot will certainly do well as he will want to prove himself.”
“In all honesty we don’t expect any major changes because of Totti’s suspension. The Italians have got their way of playing and we believe they’ll stick to that, as we surely would if it happened to any of our players.”
Defender Andreas Jakobsson agreed with his coach, stating that the Swedes must concentrate on their own preparations rather than become sidetracked by Italy’s.
“With or without Totti they are a very good team. They have 23 top class players in their squad and their defence is particularly solid,” said the Brondby centre half.
“It’s important that we believe in our own style and that we play along the lines we’ve set up.”
Star striker Larsson also insisted that the Sweden should not take anything for granted this evening, and that while the result was good against Bulgaria there is still room for improvement.
“Yes, we got a fantastic result against Bulgaria, but we mustn’t forget that we struggled a lot in the first 20 or 30 minutes,” warned the former Celtic star.
“We have to focus on Italy now.”
Italy: Buffon; Panucci, Nesta, Cannavaro, Zambrotta; Gattuso, Pirlo, Zanetti; Cassano, Vieri, Del Piero
Sweden (probable): Isaksson; Lucic, Mellberg, Jakobsson, Edman; Mikael Nilsson, Linderoth, Anders Svensson, Ljungberg; Ibrahimovic, Larsson
Referee: Urs Maier (Swi)