WCQ Preview: Republic of Ireland versus Italy

If there was ever a match destined for a draw, this was it. Whether you look at the stakes, the form, the history, the styles, or the personnel, it all leads to Italy leaving Ireland with a point, putting them into South Africa and the Republic of Ireland on track for the playoff.

Let’s start with the form and recent history, looking at the entire qualifying cycle. Neither Italy nor Ireland have lost in Group 8 play, yet they have combined for six draws. Ireland is responsible for four of them, three of them earning Giovanni Trapattoni’s side valuable road points. One of those road draws was a 1-1 affair in Bari (April) which, in light of Bulgaria’s (third place, four points behind Ireland) 2-0 loss in Turin (September) helped give the Irish a strangle-hold on second place.

In recent rounds, neither Ireland nor Italy have given us reason to think they will get three points. Italy has a strong win on against Bulgaria, but preceding that they won 2-0 in Georgia (on two Kahka Kaladze own goals) and drew with Ireland. Although you could argue that Marcello Lippi’s team has consistently improved throughout the cycle (consistent with his plans to build his squad), Lippi is a very practical man. He knows a draw gets them to South Africa, and with Ireland clinching the playoff spot with a draw, they should find relatively accommodating hosts.

Since Bari, Ireland drew in Bulgaria and needed a late Robbie Keane winner to get three points in Cyprus. Keane also was responsible for the late winner that got the Irish a point in Italy. Further feeding into the team’s tendency to play close matches, all of Ireland’s four qualifying victories have been by one goal.

Italy looks to use a squad heavy with Juventus players, a club that (lately) can’t see to get a win. There are seven Juve players expected to start for Italy: goalie Gianluigi Buffon; defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Nicola Legrottaglie, and Fabio Grosso; midfielders Mauro Camoranesi and Claudio Marchisio; striker Vincenzo Iaquinta. Juventus has not won a match since September 12.

For their part, Ireland has a legendary Juve coach, Trapattoni, who well be very pragmatic about this match. The former manager of the Old Lady – who won six Scudetti between 1976 and 1986 for Juve – may relish showing his continued abilities against his former club and home country, but he is a professional, has committed to a style, and is unlikely to take unnecessary chances.. Knowing one point keeps Ireland on track for South Africa, Trapattoni’s style (matched with a like-minded Lippi) portends to a prudent (dull?) affair.

Both teams have the quality to win this match, and the discipline each manager instills would help their side hold a lead, should they get it. If Ireland fell behind, they would be remiss in counting on another saving tally from Robbie Keane. Given that a draw keeps them moving toward South Africa, is it worth the risk to sacrifice securing the back for scoring ambition?

And given Italy qualifies with a draw, what is there incentive to do likewise?

Prediction: 0-0, draw

Note: This is the last of my UEFA previews. I’ve tried to concentrate on the key matches, but I’ll apologize if I missed a match you were looking for. On Friday, I plan on posting a full picks column that will cover all matches for nations that are still alive. In addition, we’re considering doing something on the site come Saturday. Ideas?