BY: Steve Mitchell
A year ago when Antonio Conte took charge of the Italian national team after three consecutive league titles as Juventus coach, it seemed like the FIGC (Italian football federation) had got the perfect man for the job.
His first task was to ensure the Azzurri qualified for the 2016 European Championships in France to erase the memory of a disastrous World Cup campaign in Brazil in 2014. It started well for the 45-year-old tactician, three wins out of three saw Italy take charge of Group H but then consecutive draws at home to Friday’s opponents Croatia and away in Bulgaria saw Conte’s men lose overall control of the group.
Friday night’s match in Split (which will be played behind closed doors after crowd disturbances at previous Croatian internationals) has now become the defining match in this group as coach NicoKovač welcomes an Azzurri side beset with problems both on and off the field. Conte will be without Juventus duo Giorgio Chiellini and AndreaBarzagli for the trip to Split and goalkeeper Gigi Buffon remains a serious doubt.
On Thursday morning, PSG midfielder Marco Verratti also withdrewfrom the squad and of the players that are available, serious fitness doubts still remain over defender Leonardo Bonucci and midfield pair Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, after their Champions League heartache last weekend.
Conte has spent most of the build-up to the game denying rumours that he was about to quit his job to return to club management. He has also hinted that he will switch from his favoured 3-5-2 system to a 4-3-3 to compensate for the personnel changes. At the Azzurri training centre in Coverciano this week,Marchisio stated in a press conference that his former boss at Juventus had been working on the new formation with the players.
Sampdoria’sRoberto Soriano may possibly play alongside Pirlo and Marchisio in midfield with Lazio’s Antonio Candreva playing in a more advanced attacking role with Southampton’s GrazianoPellè and AC Milan youngster Stephan El Shaarawy. AS Roma defender DavideAstori may partner Bonucci in the centre of defence with PSG’s Simone Sirigu replacing the unfortunate Buffon between the posts.
Croatia start as favourites for this game despite the Italians being unbeaten in 45 consecutive European Championship and World Cup qualifiers dating back to September 2006 when they lost against France.The hosts have only lost once to their visitors in eight previous meetings.It seems Kovač will stick with his tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 system but he will be without Real Madrid’s Luca Modrić who is suffering from a knee injury. His place may be taken by Fiorentina’s Milan Badelj.
Barcelona’s brilliant playmaker and Champions League Final goal scorer Ivan Rakitić, will orchestrate things behind highly prised Athletico Madrid striker Mario Mandžukić, whose participation is also subject to a late fitness test.
A win for the hosts on Friday evening will see them take a giant step towards automatic qualification for next summer’s tournament whilst defeat for the Italians and a win for Norway at home to Azerbaijan, will see the Azzurri lose temporary control of their own destiny. History shows that nobody does adversity quite like the Italian national football team and the final match day in this section sees Conte’s men welcome Norway to the peninsula. Don’t be surprised if we have an autumn blockbuster to decide who gets the final ticket to France in 2016.
Our Probable Formations:
Croatia (4-2-3-1) Subašić; Pranjić,Lešković, Vida, Srna; Badelj,Brozović; Olić, Rakitić, Perišić; Mandžukić
Italy (4-3-3) Sirigu; De Silvestri, Bonucci, Astori, Darmian; Pirlo, Soriano, Marchisio; Candreva, Pellè, El Shaarawy