Two weeks from their opening World Cup contest against England, Italy will their continue preparations against another nation from the British Isles. The friendly with Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland represents the final opportunity to impress Coach Cesare Prandelli ahead of the squad deadline.
The match at Craven Cottage in London will be the nations’ 13th, with the first dating back in 1926. It’s a ledger that Italy largely dominates - they’ve won eight times to Ireland’s two, with a pair of draws. At the World Cup, it’s a win apiece.
Italy ended the Irish dream at Italia ’90. Salvatore Schillaci continued his incredible tournament by netting his fourth goal, the only one of the encounter. But Jack Charlton’s side exited their first World Cup with heads held high.
Four years later, Ireland claimed a first win over Italy and dealt the Azzurri a severe World Cup blow in the process. To date, the match at New Jersey’s Giants Stadium represents the last time Italy have lost the opener at a World Cup. To that point, they had last suffered that predicament 40 years earlier.
The Italian media assumed Giants Stadium would be awash with Italo-Americans. Instead, they were hopelessly outnumbered by the Irish support. About the same scenario Ireland found themselves in four years earlier in Rome.
“Italy are one of the biggest nations in the world,” Charlton said before USA ’94 started, “and have tremendously gifted, talented players that are recognised throughout the world and are expected to win a World Cup. Ireland are not expected to win a World Cup.”
Arrigo Sacchi’s side made an awful start. In the 11th minute Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi couldn’t clear and Ray Houghton clipped a long range effort over the head of Gianluca Pagliuca. It was to be the only goal of the game.
Not for the want of trying. Italy pressed but could not pass the Irish wall, led superbly by Paul McGrath. He had to pass a fitness test to be able to play, but did an admirable job shackling Roberto Baggio. Sacchi, ever the tinkerer, introduced Daniele Massaro to partner Baggio, with Giuseppe Signori moving out wide. The Lazio man forced a good save from Packie Bonner, while with 18 minutes remaining John Sheridan rattled Pagliuca’s crossbar.
The blame back home was placed on the Coach, whilst Pagliuca also didn’t escape the furore. And the Observer stated that: “The market in rotten tomatoes is expected to move substantially unless they recover in time for Thursday’s encounter with the Norwegians.” Luckily for Sacchi and his squad, things did improve.
Since that breakthrough Irish win, results have been mixed. Two friendlies have been split, while the pair of 2010 World Cup qualifiers ended in stalemate. In the most recent meeting, Italy assured their spot in the last eight at Euro 2012 with a 2-0 win, adding to a miserable tournament for the Republic.
But it’s that sweltering afternoon at Giants Stadium which lingers. The Azzurri were caught off-guard. They had been sluggish pre-tournament – including a loss to Serie C2 club Pontedera – in typical Italian fashion. It’s something Prandelli will hope to avoid this time around.
England Coach Roy Hodgson – the Switzerland boss back in 1994 – will be present on Saturday, seeking to catch a glimpse of the Nazionale before Manaus. He acknowledges the match won’t reveal the full picture, but an insight into Prandelli’s thinking. A fortnight later Hodgson will be aiming to equal his countryman’s accomplishment in New Jersey.
Given its place on the schedule, Saturday is an important test. It’s the chance to put Coverciano training into effect. And for fringe players such as Giuseppe Rossi, Mattia Destro and Marco Verratti to show the CT they belong.
Prandelli has offered all potential squad members hope: “I have not decided anything yet. I still have to wait and see how the players react to the workload we’re putting them under. And then, only after Saturday’s match against [Republic of] Ireland will I give you my 23.” The final squads must be submitted to FIFA by Monday.
The Irish test will go some way to revealing Prandelli’s plans and will illustrate who is showing the greatest desire to go to Brazil, where the Azzurri hope to be protagonists. Prandelli will be wishing it will be a World Cup without any nasty surprises like the one suffered 20 years ago.