Italy coach Cesare Prandelli is committed to bringing young players into his side. Don’t be fooled by the return of veteran fullback Gianluca Zambrotta for Friday’s European Championship qualifier with Northern Ireland.
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With a couple of younger players away with the under-21 side, calling up the 33-year-old Zambrotta was a logical choice. But he won’t be in the starting 11.
"I’m not going backward, my plan is moving forward. But if I don’t have a young player available, I adapt," Prandelli said. "And rather than call up a 28-year-old with little international experience, I called up Zambrotta, who has nearly 100 appearances in Azzurro, is in good form and very available."
Northern Ireland, meanwhile, is hoping to feed off the success of Ryder Cup heroes Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell entering the match in Belfast. McIlroy holed a key putt during Europe’s victory over the United States on Monday and McDowell clinched the decisive point.
The Italian brothers Edoardo and Francesco Molinari were also part of Europe’s Ryder Cup team, although they were not as decisive as the Northern Ireland duo.
"Rory and Graeme had a great Ryder Cup and are two worthy champions," Northern Ireland coach Nigel Worthington told the Italian media. "Imitating them would be fantastic, but the key thing is that they can transmit belief and confidence to us. We can’t just defend – we have our own style of play and we don’t want to betray it."
Each side enters with a perfect record in Group C.
Northern Ireland won 1-0 in Slovenia in its only qualifier thus far, while Italy beat Estonia and the Faeroe Islands last month.
Extra security is expected for the game in the wake of a dissident Irish Republican Army car bomb blast on Tuesday in Londonderry, the sixth such attack this year in the British territory.
Prandelli announced his lineup Thursday, including 23-year-old Domenico Criscito at left back and 27-year-old Mattia Cassani at right back.
"It’s a choice I made because I want to provide continuity and these kids already played in the first qualifiers," Prandelli said. "Having Gianluca on the bench is an extraordinary advantage, since he can play on the right or left."
Zambrotta last appeared for Italy in a loss to Slovakia in June, which ensured a humiliating first-round exit from the World Cup for the Azzurri. He was not included in the squad to play Estonia or the Faeroes.
"At the World Cup, I said I didn’t feel like I was done. And when Prandelli called me last week to ask if I was available to come back, I wasn’t thinking about any sort of revenge," Zambrotta said. "I simply said ‘yes.’ I’m not here to take anyone’s place and I’m not saying now that I’m back I expect to play. But I do have nearly 100 appearances and I would like to reach that number."
Zambrotta needs three more caps to reach 100. Unless he comes off the bench in Belfast, his next chance to play will come when Italy hosts Serbia in Genoa on Tuesday.
With Riccardo Montolivo out nursing an ankle injury, Stefano Mauri will start in midfield following his first call-up in three years. Mauri has been one of the early standouts in Serie A, helping Lazio to top the standings.
In attack, AS Roma’s Marco Borriello will start at center forward with Alberto Gilardino sent home earlier in the week due to an aching left calf. Borriello will be flanked by Simone Pepe and Antonio Cassano in a 4-3-3 formation.
With Gianluigi Buffon still recovering from back surgery, 24-year-old Emiliano Viviano of Bologna will get the nod in goal.
"These games are crucial," said center back Giorgio Chiellini. "(Northern Ireland) really gets the best out of itself at home."
Northern Ireland beat England 1-0 in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, the only qualifier for any tournament England lost in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s six years in charge. It then beat Spain 3-2 in Belfast in qualifying for the 2008 European Championship, which Spain eventually won.
"At home over the last few years, we’ve had some really good results. The England and Spain games will be talked about for years, and we beat a lot of good teams that were ranked higher than us at home," said Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes.
"Our home form is strong and we should go into the game with plenty of confidence, but it would be extremely dangerous to go into the match thinking Italy aren’t what they used to be because the team is full of quality players."