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Belarus hope lightning strikes twice

Bottom of Group A going into the last round of fixtures, Belarus hope to turn back the clock five years and pull off the surprise win over leaders Italy that could earn them a semi-final berth.

Sergei Gigevich (right) in action for Belarus during their play-off victory against Turkey
Sergei Gigevich (right) in action for Belarus during their play-off victory against Turkey ©Pressball

Belarus will look to turn back the clock five years in their decisive final Group A fixture with leaders Italy in Helsingborg.

• Yuri Kurnenin's men enter the match bottom of the section yet knowing a victory could still earn them a semi-final place. The odds may favour the Azzurrini, but Belarus can take heart from having achieved the feat once before, when recording a surprise 2-1 win over Italy at the 2004 finals in Germany.

• Italy are strongly placed to reach the semi-finals, with four points to their name following a draw with Serbia and victory over Sweden. A win against Belarus would tie up first place for Pierluigi Casiraghi's side and they would even qualify with a low-scoring defeat – by two goals or less – if the group's other game between Serbia and Sweden ended in a draw.

• After losing to Sweden and drawing with Serbia, Belarus have no such luxury – it is win or bust for the eastern European side.

• If they beat Italy, Belarus would be guaranteed a semi-final place on the head-to-head rule so long as there was a winner in the Serbia-Sweden game. In the event of a Sweden-Serbia draw, they must beat Italy by three clear goals, given that this would leave them level with the Italians and Swedes on four points with head-to-head results, then goal difference the first two deciding factors.

• This is the countries' sixth competitive meeting at Under-21 level. The five previous encounters have produced three wins for Italy, one for Belarus and one draw.

• The full breakdown of past matches is:
2006 Qualifying Group 5
12.10.04 Italy 2-1 Belarus, Mantova
06.09.05 Belarus 1-1 Italy, Borisov

2004 Final tournament Group A
27.05.04 Italy 1-2 Belarus, Bochum

2000 Qualifying Group 1
31.03.99 Italy 4-1 Belarus, Giulianova
08.10.99 Belarus 1-2 Italy, Borisov

• Belarus produced a big upset when the two sides met at the Ruhrstadion in Bochum in their opening Group A fixture at the 2004 finals. Goals from Roman Kirenkin and Aleksandr Hleb put Belarus 2-0 up by half-time and though Alberto Gilardino pulled one back for Italy on 58 minutes Belarus, helped by the added-time dismissal of Daniele Bonera, held on.

• The two sides have met four times in qualifying, twice for the 2000 tournament and twice for the 2006 event.

• Eventual champions Italy won seven of their eight games in qualifying for the 2000 competition, including both group encounters with Belarus, who did not reach the finals. Andrea Pirlo scored twice in Italy's 4-1 win in Giulianova on 31 March 1999 before the Azzurrini won the return in Borisov 2-1 on 8 October 1999.

• History repeated itself in qualifying for the 2006 tournament when Italy again finished top of their group with Belarus eliminated. Alberto Aquilani scored the winner in Italy's 2-1 victory over the Belarussians in Mantova on 12 October 2004, before the sides played out a 1-1 draw in Borisov on 6 September 2005.

• Dmitriy Komarovski and Leonid Kovel were in the Belarus side beaten 4-1 by Italy in the UEFA European Under-19 Championship Elite round in May 2004. Pavel Chesnovski was an unused substitute.

• Oleg Veretilo and Mikhail Sivakov have enjoyed success in a final tournament against Italy before, appearing in the Belarus side which won 1-0 against these opponents in the 2005 European U17 Championship group stage.

• Italy's Juventus-based trio of Paolo De Ceglie, Sebastian Giovinco and Claudio Marchisio will know better than to underestimate Belarussian opposition. They were in the Juve side held at home and away by an FC BATE Borisov side featuring Sergei Krivets, Sivakov and Aleksandr Volodko in the UEFA Champions League group stage last season.

• Krivets scored BATE's opening goal against Juventus in the teams' 2-2 draw in Minsk on 30 September 2008 – BATE led 2-0 that night before a fightback by the Italian side. The clubs subsequently played out a goalless draw in Turin in December.

• After playing against Juventus in the UEFA Champions League, Sivakov moved to Italy in January, signing for Cagliari Calcio. His team-mates there include Francesco Pisano and Robert Acquafresca, although he has yet to make his first-team debut.

• As a player, Italy coach Casiraghi appeared in S.S. Lazio's 4-1 aggregate win over Belarussian club FC Dinamo Minsk in the UEFA Cup first round in 1994/95.

Squad news


• Belarus kept their hopes alive when they recovered from a 5-1 opening-day loss to Sweden to draw 0-0 with Serbia on Friday.

• "It was very difficult to lift ourselves after what happened against Sweden, but we managed to overcome the blow to our confidence. I have to give my players huge credit for this," coach Kurnenin said. "We showed we are men and that we deserve to be playing in this championship."

• Belarus made three changes to their starting XI for the Serbia game: left-back Maksim Bordachov, midfield anchor Sivakov and striker Vladimir Yurchenko coming in for Aleksandr Martynovich, Volodko and Komarovski.

• The Belarussians go into their final Group A game against Italy with a clean bill of health. Martynovich suffered a knock in training and goalkeeper Pavel Chesnovski injured his chin against Serbia, but both have participated fully in preparations for the match at the Olympia.

• Igor Shitov, Leonid Kovel, Andrei Chukhlei and Bordachov were booked against Serbia, joining Krivets and Martynovich on the list of players who will receive a one-game suspension if cautioned again.

• Mikhail Afanasiev made a national-record 40th U21 appearance against Italy, having matched Yuri Zhevnov's previous best of 39 against the Swedes.

• The 5-1 defeat by Sweden was Belarus's heaviest in a final tournament and equalled their worst competitive result at this level. They lost to Norway by the same scoreline on 5 June 2001 in qualifying for the 2002 UEFA European U21 Championship.

• Kurnenin returned to the bench against Serbia, having been replaced by assistant coach Georgi Kondratiev for the Sweden game when he served a one-match ban.


• Mario Balotelli misses the game in Helsingborg through suspension after being shown a straight red card in the 38th minute of the Azzurrini's victory over Sweden on Friday. He had scored the opening goal 15 minutes before – his fourth strike in five U21 competitive matches.

• Andrea Consigli and Marco Motta were also booked at the Olympia and, along with Marchisio and Francesco Pisano, are one caution away from a single-match suspension.

• Italy coach Casiraghi had named an unchanged XI from the goalless Group A opener against Serbia the previous Tuesday. Sweden began brightly but Italy gained more possession once Giovinco, starting on the right of a three-man attack, dropped into a deeper, more central position behind Balotelli and Acquafresca.

• It was Giovinco's pass that led to Balotelli's breakthrough goal. The Juventus forward also crossed for Acquafresca to head in the second on 53 minutes. "I think that role in the hole is the one that suits me best," he said. "I'm happy, but the most important thing is we won."

• Acquafresca was Italy's five-goal top scorer in qualifying and has now netted six times in eleven competitive U21 outings. "A goal is always important for a striker, and this one was because it helped us win a difficult game with ten men," he said. "It's a pity about Mario's sending-off, but we proved we are not dependent on him."

• Italy finished the game with a 5-4-0 formation, playing without a striker after both Giovinco and Acquafresca were substituted in the second half.

• Goalkeeper Consigli won the Carlsberg Man of the Match award for his performance, which included excellent saves from deflected shots by Rasmus Elm and substitute Martin Olsson. "This is my last opportunity to play at a European Under-21 Championship and receiving this award is a great thrill," the Atalanta BC player said. "However, I hope this is just a first trophy before the big one at the end of the tournament."

• Italy had a light training session on Saturday before stepping up the intensity on Sunday. They had no new injuries to report, although Marchisio received treatment for a knock sustained to the lower back against Sweden.

• The players had a walk through Helsingborg on Sunday, later reconvening at their base at the Hotel Elite Marina Plaza to watch the senior Italy side's FIFA Confederations Cup match against Brazil.