Belfast Telegraph

Rejuvenated Italians seek two wins from two before Belfast battle

By Graham Luney

By the time Northern Ireland welcome Italy to Windsor Park for a mouth-watering clash on Friday, October 8, the boys in blue could be going for a hat-trick of wins.

Even though the Azzurri had a shocking World Cup in South Africa, they have kicked off their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign as they mean to go on — by winning their opener.

Under new coach Cesare Prandelli, they showed a never-say-die spirit to come from behind and overcome Estonia in a tricky opener.

While fellow World Cup finalists Serbia swept aside minnows Faroe Islands 3-0, Italy’s players had to roll up their sleeves in Tallinn.

Sergei Zenjov had given Estonia a shock first-half lead against the 2006 World champions but second-half strikes from Antonio Cassano and Leonardo Bonucci allowed Prandelli to begin his competitive reign at the Italy helm with a win.

The Azzurri can now make it two wins out of two by conquering the Faroe Islands tomorrow at the Stadio Artemio Franchi — home ground of Prandelli's former club Fiorentina.

Serbia, whose 3-0 win was sealed after goals from Danko Lazovic, Dejan Stankovic and Birmingham City new-boy Nikola Zigic, will now be braced for a Slovenia backlash after their surprise defeat to Northern Ireland.

But all eyes will still be on the Italians and how they are shaking off their World Cup hangover.

Prandelli paid tribute to his players for their winning start.

“I have a lot of emotion after this win,” he said. “I'm happy because in the dressing room after the first half the guys didn't have much faith.

“I told them we could recover and that nothing was lost, and when we came back out there was the reaction I had asked for.”

And ahead of his return to Florence, the manager added: “I'm sure I will feel some incredibly strong emotions on an unforgettable evening.

“Perhaps only on Tuesday night will I truly understand everything that has happened over the past few months and I'll feel the pressure. I am feeling immense joy looking forward to this match. I hope there will be many people ready to celebrate the Azzurri.”

Northern Ireland fans are hoping Italy won’t be celebrating on October 8 but Stephen Craigan knows the size of the task.

“They will be a different attacking team to the disappointing one we saw at the World Cup when maybe they were an ageing side,” said the Motherwell defender.

Tomorrow’s Euro 2012 Group C fixtures: Serbia v Slovenia (7.30); Italy v Faroe Islands (7.50).

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