FOR ITALY, THERE are so many dimensions to tonight’s decisive match that you could understand Cesare Prandelli’s head spinning in frustration at yesterday’s fractious press conference.
Consider all this, for starters. There’s basic qualification and elimination; the potential for a repeat of 2004; Giovanni Trapattoni being on the other side of that and, of course, the old master facing his former apprentice in Prandelli.
For Ireland, though, there’s only one dimension: pride.
And there is a legitimate question as to whether those contrasting mentalities of the teams — one single-minded, the other occupied with all manner of permutations — will provide Trapattoni’s side with the opportunity to finally put some points on the board and prevent a first ever whitewash in a major tournament.
What’s more, there are a few other aspects going for Ireland beyond the simplicity of their situation.
For one, there’s the fact that there’s nothing to play for… bear with us here. If Trapattoni is correct and exact height of the stage actually caused vertigo in some of his players over the last week, then they may well benefit from the typical serenity that comes from the very worst having taken place.
Whereas the players were anxious and agitated in previous games, they may well be assured tonight due to the absence of expectation.
Additionally, Italy don’t exactly have the fear factor for Ireland that Spain had. Trapattoni is, after all, unbeaten against his home country with Ireland. There’s also an argument that Prandelli has something of a complex as regards his old boss.
On top of all that, then, there’s a clear resolve that’s very evident in the players. Make no mistake. They are exceptionally stung by what has happened over the last week. As a hugely downbeat Richard Dunne said on Saturday, “nobody knows how much we’re hurting”. We do. You only have to look at the players’ faces.
And, ultimately, it’s entirely possible that sense of mission may well imbue in the Irish players that energy that brings the extra application of Paris. Of course, it’s also possible that Italy will reassert reality again. Because, as goes without saying, they are a superior team than Ireland. They also play much more proactive football, with the kind of interchanging possession game that has given Trapattoni’s such problems over the past week.
As Prandelli said himself in yesterday’s press conference, “you earn luck by playing attacking football”. So far, Ireland have been victims of relying on luck by playing defensive football.
At the least, Italy do have a few issues at both ends of the pitch. In the forward line, Prandelli is waiting on the fitness of Mario Balotelli and doesn’t yet know if he’ll start the Manchester City enigma or the much more prolific Antonio Di Natale. More mobile despite his odd lack of urgency against Spain, Balotelli won’t require the adjustment in attack that the Udinese forward does. As Prandelli admitted yesterday, playing Di Natale puts a greater emphasis on the midfielders to get the ball forward more quickly.
In defence, however, Prandelli refused to admit whether he’d play three or four at the back, pleading with the Italian press to give him “at least a slight advantage”.
All of that only adds another layer of complexity to the day.
There is no such complexity with Ireland, of course.
Trapattoni will start exactly the same XI as he did against Croatia and for most of the qualifying campaign.
For some — most likely Shay Given and Damien Duff on his 100th cap — it also may be a last hurrah. That will only strengthen resolve… and, potentially, strengthen Ireland’s chances of doing what they couldn’t in the previous games and staying solid.
Prediction: Italy 1-1 Ireland