Impressive Italy should continue to dominate Northern Ireland

Stuart Dallas and Kyle Lafferty could be key players for Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough in Italy.
Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

World Cup qualifying Uefa Group C: Italy v Northern Ireland (7.45pm Irish time)

Sometimes fear is inspired by a name alone, a reputation based on past achievements.

Sometimes, though, that trepidation is the result of recent reality.

This is one of those latter occasions.

Forget about Italy being 'four-time World Cup winners'. This current side is very good in its own right.

Forget also about Italian football's reputation for being dour and defensive.

Certainly this Italy are extremely hard to beat, currently on a 22-game stretch without losing, going back to a narrow defeat by Portugal in September 2018.

Yet that streak isn't littered with draws, as you might expect, but includes 17 victories. Indeed there was a record-breaking 11-match winning run in there, with 38 goals for and only four against, culminating in a 9-1 thrashing of Armenia. Italy qualified for Euro 2020 in perfect fashion thanks to 10 of those victories in Group J.

What's more there have only been two 1-0 wins among those 17, both early on in the sequence.

Make no mistake (which is also good advice for the travelling team), the scale of the task facing Northern Ireland tonight is monumental. Italy aren't being talked up based on history, they're a clear and present danger, a team very much on the up under former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini.

Even if this match happened to be in the 'eternal city' of Rome it would be hard for hope to spring eternal for the visitors.

The World Cup draw was unkind to NI, but a draw in Parma is the very best they can hope for.

And whichever way you slice it, chances of even a point are transparently thin.

The visitors can only really travel in hope, not expectation.

Since the drawn-out departure of inspirational manager Michael O'Neill last April, his successor Ian Baraclough has enjoyed only one win from eight matches – and that on penalties.

Admittedly, it was an impressive away display against Bosnia & Herzegovina in the Euro play-off semi-final.

It's true too that performances have been better than results, and away performances have been better than the home form.

The new boss's reign began with a 1-1 draw in Romania and, even with a much-depleted side, Baraclough's boys only lost 1-0 to an own goal in Norway, and a plainly offside goal turned the game in the 2-1 loss in Austria.

There's no doubt Northern Ireland have suffered without the presence of the 'Green and White Army', or only having them at Windsor Park in limited numbers.

Yet the absence of fans in the Ennio Tardini Stadium may be a rare positive factor for NI in this tie. The concession of an early goal isn't so bad in an empty ground, for example. Equally, if the hosts are striving for a breakthrough, they won't have a passionate crowd urging them on to victory.

The upside of all the elements in Italy's favour is the lack of pressure, the lack of expectation on the visitors.

It's almost half a century since Northern Ireland even scored away to Italy, Derek Dougan and Billy McAdams netting in a 3-2 friendly defeat in Bologna in April 1961. A certain Giovanni Trapattoni was in the Italian team.

Sure, there've only been four trips back since then for NI, but they've been lost by a cumulative 10 goals to nil.

Northern Ireland do at least have forwards playing and scoring for their clubs, in Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis, and confident newcomer Dion Charles. Liam Boyce would have been a strong contender to start but has been allowed to stay at home after the birth of his second child.

Yet Kilmarnock, Hull City, and Accrington Stanley are inarguably at a lower level than Serie A, whence Italy draw their attackers, such as the experienced and also in-form Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne and Andrea Belotti of Lazio, Napoli, and Torino respectively, with Juventus prospect Federico Chiesa another contender.

Yes, Serie A is not what it was and Juve are not what they were, but they're still pretty darn good.

Northern Ireland will have to hark back to the meeting just over a decade ago, when they held an Italian team including legends Andrea Pirlo and Daniele de Rossi to a goalless draw, although that Euro 2012 qualifier was in Belfast.

The defensive effort required tonight might involved a back five, especially if regular left-back Jamal Lewis of Newcastle United is ruled out with a groin problem. Wing-back would suit Shane Ferguson better anyway, and Daniel Ballard showed up well when deployed as one of three centre backs along side the usual experienced duo of Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart.

There are options and permutations in midfield, where Stuart Dallas could feature after a fine first Premier League season for Leeds United, if he's not used on the right side of defence. Paddy McNair's versatility is also useful, while young Ali McCann impressed in the last two Nations League matches back in November.

Michael Smith's displays at defensive midfield in those games against Austria and Romania also offer Baraclough food for thought about his tactical approach in terms of restricting the Italian threat.

Mancini has complained of problems in central midfield and the hosts are missing influential Chelsea midfielder Jorginho due to injury, but the depth of the Italian squad is impressive, with 38 players having been called up. A Covid outbreak at Inter delayed their players joining up, but Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi are now among the midfield options, with Alessandro Bastoni available for defence.

Ever since the shock in January 1958 when Northern Ireland secured their first appearance at a World Cup, knocking Italy out with a 2-1 win in Belfast, the latter have dominated this fixture. Italians have as long memories as the Irish…

World Cup qualifying openers usually occur early in a season, offering underdogs the belief that their opponents may be rusty.

That's not really the case in these strange times, however, and a home side tuned up by club football should be comfortable, perhaps even convincing victors.

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