Italy will be hoping to kickstart their FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers on a winning note when they host Northern Ireland in a Group C encounter this week.

The qualifying campaign for the FIFA World Cup 2022 gets underway in Europe this week and Italy, who had shockingly failed to qualify for the previous edition of football’s greatest tournament, will be aiming to get things right this time out when they take on Northern Ireland at Stadio Ennio Tardini in Parma on Thursday.

Since missing out on qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup – the first time that had happened since 1958, Italy have come a long way. Under Roberto Mancini, the Azzurri won each of their 10 UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying fixtures and have also qualified for the UEFA Nations League finals, having won Group A1.

They will be hoping to continue carrying one with the same momentum in the World Cup qualifiers as well, while also using these games as good preparations for the upcoming Euros.

Northern Ireland, meanwhile, come into Thursday’s clash on the back of a five-game winless run since their penalty shootout victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina in October last year. Their most recent game ended in a 1-1 draw against Romania in the UEFA Nations League where they had finished bottom of Group B2.

Having not qualified for the FIFA World Cup since 1982, the Green and White Army, managed by Ian Baraclough, will be aiming to set that straight next year. Ahead of their meeting with Italy in Parma, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at both teams.

Team News & Tactics

Italy

Bryan Cristante and Moise Kean have withdrawn from the squad due to injuries while there have been call-ups for uncapped players Gian Marco Ferrari, Rafael Toloi and Matteo Ricci. Otherwise, there are no major surprises or shocks in the roster picked by Roberto Mancini, with the usual big guns all present in the ranks, although Jorginho misses out with a knee issue.

The Inter Milan trio of Nicolo Barella, Alessandro Bastoni and Stefano Sensi has been cleared to participate amid a COVID-19 outbreak at the club after no positive test results were returned following the latest round of testing. Italy will line up in Mancini’s preferred 4-3-3 formation with Gianluigi Donnarumma manning the goal.

Alessandro Florenzi, who has done well on loan at PSG, should get the nod at right-back while Emerson Palmieri remains the first-choice left-back for the national team despite hardly playing for Chelsea. Leonardo Bonucci and Francesco Acerbi are likely to form the centre-back pairing for the Azzurri.

Manuel Locatelli, who has been linked with Real Madrid, ought to be the deepest of the three central midfielders in Jorginho’s absence. Alongside him will be Marco Verratti, who will look to create openings with his supreme range of passing while Nicolo Barella will act as the ball-carrier.

On current form, Federico Chiesa becomes a certain starter on the right flank while Lorenzo Insigne’s quality from the left makes him a lethal weapon for Italy. Through the centre, it will be a toss-up between Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti, although the former could edge out the Torino man on Thursday.

Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Donnarumma; Florenzi, Bonucci, Acerbi, Emerson; Verratti, Locatelli, Barella; Chiesa, Immobile, Insigne

Northern Ireland

Star striker Conor Washington has withdrawn from the squad due to an injury and has been replaced by Shayne Lavery, while winger Jordan Jones is also missing. Manager Ian Baraclough will also be sweating over the fitness of Jamal Lewis, who is nursing an injury.

Accrington Stanley striker Dion Charles and Derry City goalkeeper Nathan Gartside have received their first-ever call-ups to the national team along with Liverpool teenager Liam Hughes. There is a return to the national setup for Corry Evans as well as Ciaron Brown but Manchester United youngster Ethan Galbraith does not make the cut.

Baraclough set his team up in a 3-5-2 formation in the draw against Romania last November and is likely to continue with a similar setup, although it could be more of a 5-3-2 when Italy are in possession, with the wing-backs in Stuart Dallas and Matty Kennedy- if Lewis is not fit – dropping back to support the three centre-halves who will be Daniel Ballard, Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart.

Captain Steven Davis could get a run-out in the middle of the park alongside former Manchester United academy man Paddy McNair and Alistair McCann who will provide defensive support when not in possession and look to push forward when the Green and White Army do have the ball.

At the top, Josh Magennis and Liam Boyce could get the nod although veteran striker Kyle Lafferty is a viable alternative for the manager to consider. Burnley’s No. 2 Bailey Peacock-Farell should be the man in goal.

Probable Lineup (3-5-2): Peacock-Farrell; Ballard, Evans, Cathcart; Dallas, McNair, Davis, McCann, Kennedy; Magennis, Boyce

Key Stats

  • This will be the tenth meeting between Italy and Northern Ireland. The former has picked up six wins in the previous nine games while the latter has won just once (D2).
  • Italy are unbeaten in each of their last six games against Northern Ireland (W5 D1), winning their most recent fixture in 2011 3-0. The Azzurri kept clean sheets in each of their previous five matches vs Northern Ireland.
  • Out of the eight matches that they played last year, Northern Ireland managed to pick up just the one victory, that too came via a penalty shootout vs Bosnia and Herzegovina (D2 L5).
  • Italy, meanwhile, haven’t lost a single game since September 2018. They are currently on a 22-game unbeaten streak (W17 D5).
  • Italy have kept a clean sheet in six of their last eight matches.

Player to Watch

Ciro Immobile

Embed from Getty Images

Having been one of the most consistent goalscorers across Europe over the past couple of seasons, the 31-year-old has seen his form dwindle somewhat in 2020/21. While a return 19 goals in 31 games in all competitions is by no means bad, Immobile has not been able to perform at the level he used to.

In fact, the Lazio striker has gone without a goal in his last seven appearances across all competitions. And, on Thursday he will be aiming to bring an end to that run and help Italy begin their World Cup qualifying campaign with a bang, by adding to his tally of 10 international goals.

Prediction

Italy 2-0 Northern Ireland

Given their form and the gulf of quality between the two teams, Italy are the overwhelming favourites heading into the game. Northern Ireland, with their shape and defensive outlook, may try to frustrate their hosts but Roberto Mancini’s men have what it takes to break through any shackles. An easy win for the Azzurri.

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