Italian coach Cesare Prandelli is totally concentrated on Italy's opening World Cup Group D game against England in Manaus on June 14th. So much so that, as he prepares for tomorrow night's warm-up friendly against Ireland, he has names like Rooney, Gerrard and Sturridge on his mind, rather than O'Shea, McGeady or Doyle.
During a pre-match press conference at the federation’s training centre in Coverciano, Florence, this mornin, The Irish Times asked the affable Prandelli what he knew of Martin O’Neill’s Ireland side.
“Ireland are a team that we know well, they are a very physical team and that suits us well because we want to see how our players will react to this type of (physical) game...but they’re a good team,” he said. “This is a side going through a period of renewal. I was looking at them on DVD and they have a couple of very interesting players.”
“Ah, don’t ask me that. They’re young players and very good ones, too”
For Prandelli and Italy, that opening game against England is the one that matters. Everyone in the Italian camp is all too aware that a false start against Roy Hodgson's side could see Italy heading down the road to a repeat of their miserable first round elimination in South Africa, when coached by Marcello Lippi.
All of that, however, is not to say that tomorrow night's game is not of critical importance to Prandelli, who will field a largely experimental side with obvious first choice players in Brazil, such as goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, defender Giorgio Chiellini, midfield playmaker Andrea Pirlo and striker Mario Balotelli all being rested. It's a final audition for some, before the 30-man squad is cut down to 23 after tomorrow night's match.
That means that for at least three players, Torino defender Matteo Darmian, PSG attacking midfielder Marco Verratti and Fiorentina striker Giuseppe Rossi, a good performance against Ireland could see them book a place in the squad for Brazil. Right-back Darmian has had an excellent season in a Torino side that has played its way into the Europa League next year, whilst Verratti has had a difficult year in the PSG all star formation that got knocked out of the Champions League by Chelsea.
Much Italian interest will be focussed on Rossi, the former Manchester United and Villareal striker, who appeared a certainty for Brazil until he badly damaged knee ligaments in a January Serie A game against Livorno. Since then, hehas been in a race against time to be ready for the World Cup, coming back for just four games earlier this month.
Prandelli, however, has such a high regard for Rossi that, even though the player cannot be 100 per cent fit, he may well still take him to Brazil, perhaps to play alongside Mario Balotelli in attack. Tomorrow night’s game, however, could prove decisive when it comes to analysing his chances.
“There is something fantastic about the way he (Rossi) has come back, maybe it is a sort of inner serenity, but he has a terrific will to overcome all the problems in front of him, not just physical problems either...And then of course, there is tomorrow night’s game when I have to set aside nice thoughts and sentiments and . . . assess how he holds up in a game, how he handles the sort of tackles and physical pressure of the game, to reassure ourselves that he has no qualms about the physical side of the game . . .”
As he looks forward to Brazil, Prandelli even conceded that a defeat tomorrow night would not worry him, given that Italy often play badly in pre-tournament friendlies. The important thing is to learn from the game and be ready for that all important opening appointment against England.
“Everyone knows that we’re in a very difficult group and it will not be easy . . . England will bring five or six new names to the tournament, guys who have had a fantastic season. They have no worries about taking young players to Brazil and I expect them to be very good.”
Again, the Italian coach refrained from naming names but one suspects that Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson and Danny Welbeck, might well have been on his mind. Whatever way you put it, he was not thinking about Irish players.
Italian team: (4-3-1-2): Sirigu: Darmian, Paletta, Bonucci, De Ciglio; Thiago Motta, Montolivo, Marchisio: Verratti; Rossi, Immobile