Recent friendly form aside, Italy have plenty to be positive about going to Brazil. Coach Cesare Prandelli has just signed a contract extension, keeping him with the Azzurri until after the European Championships in 2016, and thanks to a largely fit squad, the former Fiorentina boss will have some tough choices to make when he cuts his 30-man squad down to the final 23.
The continuity that Prandelli's commitment brings can only be a good thing for the group's morale and the long-term development of the squad's younger players, but nothing would provide a pre-tournament boost quite like a win in this game, because despite making real improvements under Prandelli, the Azzurri have now gone five games without success.
Italy qualified for this summer's World Cup impeccably, but the coach's desire to experiment and use different players whenever possible has seen them struggle in friendlies—they've won just four out of 20 during his time in charge—and they're now without a win since their last qualifier back in September 2013, when they beat Czech Republic 2-1.
Four of the last five games have been draws, but with several fringe players getting a start—and Prandelli's final 23-man roster still undecided—there should be plenty of fireworks at Craven Cottage as players like Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti and Fiorentina's Giuseppe Rossi do their best to prove they merit a place on the plane to Brazil.
There's also plenty of history between these two sides, and although Italy are undoubtedly the favourites they won't want to slip up against Ireland in the way that Arrigo Sacchi's side so famously did in their opening game at World Cup 1994. The game will be their 13th meeting, with Italy winning eight to Ireland's two.
Most eyes will be on Fiorentina's Giuseppe Rossi during the game. The 27-year-old was in electric form earlier in the season for the Viola before succumbing to yet another of the serious injuries that have dogged the American-born Italian's career. This game with Ireland is seen as his final test.
Speaking to the Italian press before departing for London (here in English via Football Italia), Prandelli sounded optimistic about Rossi, saying:
In Rossi I see something particularly wonderful—his inner serenity, his desire to overcome the difficulties, not only physical.
It is clear, however, that then there is a game. We have to put aside the emotion, the feeling towards this guy who has the human and technical capacity to be a champion.
We need to put a seal on the pressure, on the physical challenge and mentally set him free.
Rossi has passed all the physical tests, he is not a risk from this point of view.
If the striker makes it through the Ireland game, and the subsequent recovery period immediately afterward, he'll almost certainly be a part of Prandelli's 23. If not, Roma's Mattia Destro is the most obvious option.
Destro won't be the only one in London hoping that he can do enough to impress the boss, however. The starting XI in Fulham is set to include a number of players who badly need to impress if they're to make the cut.
Predicted starting XI (4-3-1-2)
Salvatore Sirigu; Matteo Darmian, Gabriel Paletta, Leonardo Bonucci, Mattia De Sciglio; Thiago Motta, Riccardo Montolivo, Claudio Marchisio; Marco Verratti; Ciro Immobile, Giuseppe Rossi.
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