MONTPELLIER, France, June 24 – After being sucker punched by the Republic of Ireland, Italy will bring back their big guns in a bid to turn the tide of history against Spain at the European Championship finals.
Martin O’Neill’s Irish team produced a gutsy performance in Lille on Wednesday to end Azzurri hopes of a clean sweep of wins in Group.
On a pitch that UEFA admitted had suffered “irreparable damage”, an Italy ‘B’ team struggled against the Irish long-ball tactics and Robbie Brady’s 85th minute winner was enough for Ireland after Sweden lost to Belgium.
Italy’s display worried their fans that Antonio Conte’s men may not bounce back in time to face defending two-time champions Spain on Monday.
But Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne, who hit the post after coming on as a second-half substitute, insisted Italy have faith they can beat Spain at the Stade de France in Paris.
Asked about the eight changes made to the team that beat Sweden 1-0, he said: “It doesn’t matter who plays. This is a fantastic squad, were all in the same boat and we’re all rowing in the same direction.
“I’m looking ahead to Monday’s game. It’s going to be crucial but I’m convinced we can make it to the next round.”
Conte left goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, defender Giorgio Chiellini, midfielders Daniele De Rossi, Emanuele Giaccherini and Antonio Candreva and strikers Graziano Pelle and Eder on the bench for the final group clash.
– Pelle returns –
Insigne instead suggested the Irish game beat them more than the absences.
“It wasn’t a case of us missing players,” he added.
“Obviously, the pitch didn’t make it easy for us, but their physicality gave us problems, as well as their long-ball ‘chip and charge’ tactics.
“We’re not used to playing like that.”
Italy are set to switch back to the side that stunned Belgium 2-0 and kept the shackles on Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic before Inter Milan striker Eder hit the winner in Toulouse last week.
In their opening two games, a formidable Juventus defence trio — Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Chiellini — meant Buffon’s goal was impenetrable.
Deploying attacking midfielders Florenzi and Candreva as marauding wingbacks mean Italy can quickly revert to a five-man defence when needed.
Although Southampton striker Pelle failed to add to his goal against Belgium in a frustrating performance against Sweden, he should return to the starting line-up on Monday.
On paper, Spain hold all the aces.
In five previous encounters at major finals, including the Confederations Cup, Spain have prevailed three times for one loss and one draw.
Vicente del Bosque’s men notably routed Italy 4-0 in the Euro 2012 final, four years after the ‘La Roja’ beat Italy in a quarter-final penalty shootout.
Spain are gunning for a record third consecutive European crown.
But they will also seek a lift less than a week after a morale-sapping 2-1 defeat to Croatia that robbed them of top spot in Group D and a potentially easier path to the final.
“We have to recover well,” said Del Bosque after a defeat that he admitted had given them a bigger challenge than anticipated. “It is not ideal.”
For ex-Fiorentina and Italy striker Giuseppe Rossi, who now plays with Levante in Spain’s second division, Conte’s men can be confident.
“I think they will be favourites over Spain,” Rossi told Sky Sport. “It will be hard, but I have faith.
“It’s a major finals and everyone wants to win and show just how good they are. Italy always fight to the end, and when they need to score they always find a goal.”