ON THEIR GUARD

Italy coach wary of Al­ba­nia slip-up

New Straits Times - - Sport -

ITALY coach Gian Piero Ven­tura has warned a slip-up against min­nows Al­ba­nia would dent the Az­zurri’s 2018 World Cup qual­i­fy­ing hopes even be­fore a likely group de­cider away to Spain.

Ven­tura, who suc­ceeded Chelsea man­ager An­to­nio Conte af­ter he led Italy to a com­mend­able quar­ter-place fin­ish at Euro 2016, has steered Italy to three wins and a draw in their four qual­i­fiers so far.

But with only one team au­to­mat­i­cally qual­i­fy­ing for Rus­sia 2018, Italy will be forced to a play­off if they fin­ish se­cond to Spain, who lead Group G ahead of Italy on goal dif­fer­ence.

Af­ter be­ing held to a 1-1 draw by La Roja in Turin last Oc­to­ber, Italy’s World Cup chances may hinge on the re­turn fix­ture on Sept 2.

First, though, comes Al­ba­nia and Ven­tura, who called the fix­ture “ex­tremely im­por­tant”, ac­knowl­edged the Az­zurri fans may be in the mi­nor­ity at the Bar­bera Sta­dium on Fri­day.

“There’s no fear, but the re­sult against Al­ba­nia is ex­tremely im­por­tant ahead of play­ing Spain in Septem­ber,” Ven­tura said at the team’s Cover­ciano train­ing base.

“I’ve lost a lot of play­ers to in­jury, in­clud­ing (Alessan­dro) Florenzi, (Gi­a­como) Bon­aven­tura, (Andrea) Barza­gli, (Gior­gio) Chiellini and (Clau­dio) Marchi­sio.

“I’ve told Marchi­sio and Chiellini I will be count­ing on them when they are fit enough to re­turn. In the mean­time, I ex­pect us to pro­duce solid per­for­mances, be­cause we are Italy.

“If we make it to the World Cup, I’m sure we can go on to cre­ate a sur­prise, be­cause the play­ers are hun­gry for recog­ni­tion and for suc­cess.”

Ven­tura has seen first-hand the power of Al­ba­nia’s fans, who packed Mar­seille’s Stade Velo­drome for a 2-0 Euro 2016 de­feat to hosts France on what was their de­but in a men’s ma­jor foot­ball tour­na­ment.

And he ex­pects a re­peat in Si­cily.

“I was in Mar­seille, when three­quar­ters of the sta­dium was filled with Al­ba­nian sup­port­ers,” said Ven­tura.

“And I have Al­ba­nian friends who’ve as­sured me it will be the same in Palermo.”

Al­ba­nia travel to Palermo on the back of wins over Mace­do­nia and Liecht­en­stein and de­feat to Spain and Is­rael.

Ven­tura, mean­while, has been forced to bring in five new faces to his 27-man squad, that will also face the Nether­lands in an Am­s­ter­dam friendly on Tues­day, due to a rash of in­juries.

Ven­tura has called up In­ter Mi­lan de­fender Danilo D’Am­bro­sio, Ata­lanta de­fender Leonardo Spinaz­zola, Bologna winger Si­mone Verdi and Ata­lanta striker Andrea Pe­tagna.

He was also forced to call up Serie B goal­keeper Alex Meret, who plays for SPAL, on loan from Udi­nese, due to in­juries suf­fered by re­serve ‘keep­ers Mattia Perin (Genoa) and Fed­erico Marchetti (Lazio).

Al­though Ju­ven­tus ‘keeper Gian­luigi Buf­fon is set to earn his 168th Az­zurri cap, Ven­tura is look­ing to the fu­ture.

AC Mi­lan ‘keeper Gian­luigi Don­narumma is con­sid­ered Buf­fon’s nat­u­ral heir.

The in­clu­sion of sev­eral other emerg­ing Serie A play­ers is a sign, said Ven­tura: “The young guys are the fu­ture of this squad and we want to give them time to de­velop.

“Both Spinaz­zola and Pe­tagna, for ex­am­ple, were in­volved in our train­ing camps, and now they’re with the squad.”

One no­table player still miss­ing is Nice striker Mario Balotelli, who has yet to con­vince Ven­tura that he is worth a first call-up since be­ing made scape­goat for Italy ’s dis­mal first-round exit from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. AFP

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