Giovanni Trapattoni affectionately calls him "Cesarino." For six years, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli played under the Ireland manager at Juventus. He was a humble, unflashy midfielder and throughout his stay at the club more often than not had to make do with playing reserve to Marco Tardelli; one of the heroes of the 1982 World Cup, who is now working as Trapattoni’s assistant.
While frustrating at the time, in hindsight sitting on the sidelines was an education for Prandelli. He got to study one of the most successful tactician’s ever from close up at arguably the highest point of his career. “Prandelli couldn’t become anything other than a great coach seeing how much he was on the bench at our Juventus,” Trapattoni jokes. The respect between them is strong. “Trap is a maestro,” Prandelli insists. “He taught me everything I know and still has some secrets: He was the only coach that I didn’t want to face [at Euro 2012].”
This is one of Italy’s principal fears ahead of Monday night’s decisive group stage encounter with Ireland: The enemy within. No one knows Prandelli or Italy better than Trapattoni. It’s pupil against master and so far, whenever they’ve met at international level, there’s only been one winner. Ireland surprisingly beat Italy 2-0 in an end of season friendly last year.
It seemed some of Prandelli’s players were already on holiday after a long hard season. Nonetheless, give credit where it’s due. Ireland limited Italy as they had done in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup with two draws. Their esteemed opponents could only muster a single shot on target in the first half of their last meeting. Trapattoni’s intuition was “to put a traffic light on Andrea Pirlo.”
He asked striker Andy Keogh to mark the deep-lying playmaker out of the game. Of course, the theory that you can stop Italy by stopping Pirlo is a shade reductive. Even so, it’s still a good start; after all, he is what Trapattoni calls Italy’s “crossroads” – everything goes through him.
Considering Keogh didn’t make the final squad, it’s thought that it’ll be up to captain Robbie Keane to be Pirlo’s sentinel in Poznan instead. Italy must learn from that experience. Rather interestingly, Prandelli looks set to completely overhaul his team following Thursday’s compromising 1-1 draw with Croatia.
The formation is expected to change from 3-5-2 back to the 4-3-1-2 used in qualifying. Andrea Barzagli has returned from a calf injury, which means he should partner club teammate Giorgio Chiellini at defense, allowing Daniele De Rossi to reprise his place in midfield. The move from a three-man defense to a back-four also foresees the replacement of tired wing-backs Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio with fresher fullbacks Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti. Another adjustment is anticipated up front, where Antonio Di Natale might start alongside Antonio Cassano at the expense of Mario Balotelli, whose knee has been aggravating him in training.
Whatever the configuration, Italy know that they have to win to stand a chance of reaching the quarterfinals. Spain and Croatia are in control their own destiny. A 2-2 or high-scoring draw in Gdansk would be enough to see them both go through to the next round regardless of the result Italy earns against Ireland. Conspiracy theories abound, the exact same fate befell Italy at Euro 2004. After 2-2 draws with Denmark and Sweden, Italy’s 2-1 win against Bulgaria was irrelevant and were knocked out of the competition. And who was their coach that day? None other than Trapattoni himself.
Trapattoni insists he’ll give Italy no help, even though Ireland have nothing except pride to play for after their early elimination from the competition. “The manager must always put out a strong team,” he said. “If I was to play young players against Italy, there could be a perception of favoring my own country. I do have changes in mind, but then I could be accused of this.”
To further reinforce this mindset, Tardelli has even claimed that “I’ll celebrate” if Ireland were to shock Italy, just as they did in the at the 1994 World Cup group stage when Ray Houghton’s stunning half volley looped over goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca and sealed a famous 1-0 win at Giants Stadium in New York.
Italy will be hoping that Irish eyes aren’t smiling again, while hoping Spain or Croatia eyes are crying Monday night.