By Ciaran O Raghallaigh
“The ball is always round and sometimes there’s a rabbit inside it.”
One of Giovanni Trapattoni’s many, many wonderful philosophical/metaphorical word plays was mentioned in Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta Dello Sport today.
But will the Italian have a surprise for Ireland fans tonight?
They’ve already had plenty to sing about – but will there, finally, be something to cheer about?
If we’re honest, it’s hard to find anything positive on which to hang hope.
The only thing that can inspire hope, is the fact hope exists.
There is really no logical reason, when one looks back on the last 180 minutes of international football, to think Ireland could beat Italy.
Better players, in better form, with a manager who’s willing and able to alter game plans.
But Italy need to win. A draw here is no good, and Cesare Prandelli has called tonight’s match his ‘most important’ since taking charge of the national team.
On top of that pressure, the Italians have a deep sense of anxiety, that might surprise some.
If you’ve ever listened to a Trapattoni press conference, you’ll have heard controversial and contentious incidents mentioned over and over again.
He doens’t forget and it seems to be a national trait.
The ills of the past appear destined to be relived.
This week it’s been talk of Euro 2004, when Sweden and Denmark drew 2-2 in their final group game – the ONLY possible result that could knock Italy out.
Trapattoni was Italy boss that day, and he’s been asked about it many times since the second group game made a repeat scenario possible.
In fact, a 2-2 result between Spain and Croatia has been backed into 15/2.
Italy are also paralysed by memory of World Cup 2010, when they finished bottom of a group containing Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia.
Their opening two games mimicked the 1-1, 1-1 draws of this tournament – and they then lost the final must-win game against Slovakia.
But that was before Prandelli.
Sharp dressed man
The impeccably coiffured Italian is a sharp dresser and a smart speaker, and says he’s not interested in relying on fate or luck to beat Ireland.
“You’ve got to go out and make your own luck. You only earn luck by playing attacking football,” he said.
“Ireland are a very organised side. They can play football and fight. They want to give pride to their fans. It will make it a tough game,” said Prandelli.
“But I am solely focused on the result in our game. I’m not really concerned about what everyone else is saying.”
He’s switching from a back three that performed well against Spain and Croatia, without earning a win in either, to a back four (4-3-1-2).
But his midfield will be a fluid one, with Daniele De Rossi moving from defence, where he impressed against Spain, to his more natural midfield.
The hugely talented Allesandro Diamanti could be a shock inclusion, having impressed in training all week, while Andrea Pirlo’s set piece prowess would cause anxiety in any squad.
Italy want to impose themselves early on in this game, and will set a high tempo that will, they hope, cause Ireland the same problems they suffered in the two earlier games.
Ireland, for their sake, will hope to at least get past the five-minute mark without conceding.
The lack of squad rotation could hurt Trapattoni’s side’s chances, with players already complaining of tiredness. Sticking with a losing team is a baffling concept.
Italy’s midfield is not impenetrable, and if Pirlo is not afforded support from his attack minded partners in the middle, he could be susceptible to counters.
But will Ireland make it that far forward?
Much more is required from Ireland’s wingers and full backs, with particular possibilities for Ireland out wide, if they manage to get a foothold on the ball.
The ball is round. But it would need Harry Houdini inside to conjure an Ireland win, not a rabbit.