Italy vs Portugal | Tuesday 16 June | Stade de Genève | 20:30
What appears superficially as a routine international friendly could in fact hold important ramifications for both sides. Italy, if they were to lose this encounter, could drop into second tier seedings for the 2018 World Cup draw, drastically increasing their chances of running into an international heavyweight at the somewhat maligned showpiece. More pressingly, Antonio Conte is still tinkering with his new 4-3-3 formation, with further accentuates the importance of this match. Portugal, on the other hand, are without the services of talisman extraordinaire Cristiano Ronaldo, and need to find a way - any way - to function properly without him.
To Win (90mins)
Italy sit second behind Croatia in their Euro 2016 qualifying group following their credible draw at an empty Split stadium this weekend. The appearance of a Swastika at the stadium may result in a penalty for Croatia, but Conte will see this as the perfect opportunity to tinker with his side. Buffon will miss the match following his clash with Mario Mandzukic, which will see PSG ‘keeper Sirigu slot easily into the number one role. Verratti and Barzagli remain injured while Daniele Di Rossi should return to contention in the midfield.
Argentine born playmaker Franco Vasquez has been excellent for Parma this season and could well start on the right of the front three, cutting inside onto his favoured left foot to trouble Rui Patricio. El Shaarawy should start on the left, letting Immobile operate through the centre. Immobile is something of an enigma, the Andros Townsend of Italian football. He had a dreadful first season at Dortmund, netting only three times in this year’s Bundesliga. But he has featured in Conte’s side from the get-go, liberated by the 4-3-3 formation championed by the manager. He will provide headaches for the slightly elderly pairing of Carvalho and Alves. Italy are unbeaten in fourteen matches, highlighting the task ahead for a Ronaldo-less Portugal.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been allowed to go on early holiday, along with Danny, Silva and Willy Caballero. This allows Fernando Santos the opportunity to try some new attacking combinations, especially with the dynamic Quaresma returning to action. His pace, coupled with Nani’s, should trouble an Italian defence sans the services of Barzagli and Chiellini. The central defensive partnership of Alves and Carvalho provides solidity but may be vulnerable to a youthful looking Italian attacking line-up.
Moutinho will be in a particularly intense battle with Andrea Pirlo - whose actual aesthetic is fast beginning to resemble a grizzled Game of Thrones character. Pirlo’s visionary passing will be closely monitored by the harrying tactics of Joan Moutinho. Portugal have won five of their last six games, solidifying their Euro bid with a five-point lead over their closest rivals. They were unconvincing however against Armenia, requiring the exceptional Ronaldo to bail them out with yet another hat-trick. This may be a friendly, but Santos will realise the need for his side to operate with a sense of fluidity without Ronaldo’s exceptional talents.
VERDICT: Italy 5/4
Italy are on a really positive streak, seemingly liberated by Conte’s more dynamic approach. Prandelli seemed more mechanistic in approach, whereas Conti seems to be able to react instinctively to on-field scenarios. Portugal lack incision without Ronaldo; Nani and Quaresma have pace but have continually displayed an inability to add the finishing product to their work.