By Paolo Menicucci and Julia Court
It has been a long year for all potential UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifiers, but few have made better use of it than Italy.
When they lost against Wales just four days after their 1-1 home draw against Serbia and Montenegro last October, it seemed unlikely that they would be welcoming Azerbaijan to Reggio Calabria for their final game in Group 9 one victory from automatic qualification. Giovanni Trapattoni was in hot water 12 months ago but the experienced coach has now justified the Italian Football Federation's faith in him.
Since the 2-1 defeat in Cardiff, the Azzurri have won all their qualifiers until the 1-1 away draw against Serbia and Montenegro last month. But with Wales being held at home by Finland, it left Trapattoni's men still a point ahead of their British rivals, thanks to their 4-0 revenge win four days earlier.
Italy need only match Wales' home result against Serbia and Montenegro, though Trapattoni is taking nothing for granted. "We are not in Portugal yet," he said. "We have a great chance to qualify and it would be really bad if we waste it. It would become really hard to win this game if we think that we are already qualified."
Alessandro Del Piero is out with a calf injury, while right-back Christian Panucci has twisted his left ankle. Despite Del Piero's absence, Trapattoni is not short of attacking options as Christian Vieri has fully recovered from his thigh injury and will link up with Filippo Inzaghi, who scored four goals in the two September qualifiers.
Francesco Totti will play just behind the front two and Trapattoni admits of his enviable resources: "
When a coach can count on such talented players in attack he can surely feel relaxed. Inzaghi is as dangerous as always in the penalty box, Vieri has recovered from his injury and he's a crucial player for us, while Totti can inspire them with his creativity and his passing ability." AS Roma captain Totti is also confident after starting the new season in great form. "I have never felt as strong as I feel now," he said. "Everything seems easy at the moment."
To make things tougher for the visitors, Azerbaijan are without their first-choice strike partnership. Farrukh Ismaylov was involved in a car crash in Baku and is sidelined with broken ribs, while Gurban Gurbanov is unavailable with a back problem. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Welsh captain Gary Speed admits that his thoughts are already on the play-offs.
"Ninety-nine times out of a hundred Italy will beat Azerbaijan at home, so although we're optimists we're also realists and we're not expecting an upset over there," Speed told uefa.com. "All we can do is go out against Serbia and Montenegro and try to win the game."
Wales led the group until September, derailed by defeats against Serbia and Montenergro and Italy. However, Speed insists: "If you had given us a play-off place before the group began we'd have certainly settled for it then considering the teams we had in the group."
Speed's nation, who are without the injured Robbie Savage and suspended Jason Koumas, have not reach the finals of a major tournament since 1958. "
Qualifying means everything," said Speed. "Everyone in the country is really excited about the current campaign and the players are as well." Dejan Stankovic, Predrag Djordjevic, Ivica Dragutinovic and Dejan Stefanovic are all injured for the visitors to Cardiff while Mladen Krstajic is suspended.
Gary Speed's personal website is at www.icons.com
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