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Improving Slovenia first up for Italy

Italy, champions in 2003, open their Group C campaign against a Slovenia side that, according to Azzurri coach Roberto Menichelli, have grown as a team "in the last few years".

Improving Slovenia first up for Italy
Improving Slovenia first up for Italy ©UEFA.com

Having never won a point at a UEFA European Futsal Championship, a run dating back three final tournaments to 2003, improving Slovenia provide Italy with the first test in what Azzurri coach Roberto Menichelli describes as a "difficult" Group C.

Slovenia qualified for the 2014 edition in swashbuckling style, scoring 18 goals in recording three main round victories in Turkey last March. Andrej Dobovičnik's team further underlined the rate of their development when they defeated Portugal 4-2 in a December friendly and, earlier this month, drew 5-5 with continental heavyweights Spain in Maribor.

Menichelli, whose side also face Azerbaijan in Antwerp, has been impressed with their form, telling UEFA.com: "Slovenia are a good team. In the last few years they have always improved and you must consider that they won their main round group – they didn't need the play-offs. So did Azerbaijan, and for this reason it's a difficult section."

As for that high-scoring encounter with Spain, when Igor Osredkar scored twice as the Balkan selection recovered from 3-0 down against the five-time continental champions, Menichelli said: "It's a result we wouldn't have expected, but Slovenia have many qualities: they are a good team. They also beat Portugal in a friendly, so you have to give them credit."

Nine of the 14-man Slovenia squad that lost both of their fixtures in Croatia two years ago are in Belgium. As eye-catching as the outcome of that recent meeting with Spain was, Dobovičnik, who has been at the helm since November 2005, is not reading too much into it.

"This was just one match and we are not counting on the result," said Dobovičnik, three of whose players − Kristjan Čujec, Rok Mordej and Benjamin Melink – ply their trade in Italy. "On the other hand, it gave us a bit of confidence, but the matches in this tournament are totally different and so they cannot be compared to friendlies.

"Italy are the favourites for the group, they have a lot of quality players. We hope that we can save some energy and strength for the second match [on Friday]. We are aware that we are not the best team in the group, but we are good enough and on a good day we can take a point from each of our games."

Beaten by Spain in the semi-finals in Croatia and the last four of the 2012 FIFA Futsal World Cup, Italy have lost just twice in 19 outings since that third-place finish in Thailand. An experienced squad featuring the likes of Gabriel Lima, Fortino and Saad is fancied to reach the latter stages again, but Menichelli was keen to stress it will be "difficult to better that", adding: "To do more we have to reach the final, so it's not simple. It's not easy."