Roberto Mancini insists Italy ‘cannot start badly’ in World Cup qualifiers

After missing out on a World Cup for the first time in six decades four years ago, Italy will open a new qualifying campaign against Northern Ireland on Thursday night determined to make sure there is no repeat.

Thursday, 25th March 2021, 1:00 pm

Italy are on a 22-game unbeaten run, having won 10 out of 10 in their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, but the pain of missing out on Russia 2018 is still raw in the Italian camp – and Roberto Mancini is not willing to countenance an early slip-up.

“We know we are playing a huge competition in which we haven’t been winning for many years,” he said. “We will have maximum focus on that goal.

“It’s something very important because it is the first game and the first one is the hardest because it comes after many months (away).

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Northern Ireland players at the Ennio Tardini Stadium in Parma. Pic by PressEye Ltd.

“We need to be very cautious, very focused. We cannot start badly in the qualifiers.”

A poor start would be particularly costly given how much else Italy have to focus on in a packed year.

After a qualifying triple-header in the next eight days, they turn their attention to the European Championship and then the Nations League finals later in the year.

It is a lot for players and staff to juggle mentally as well as physically but captain Giorgio Chiellini – who may simply be happy to be away from Juventus’ troubles for a few days – said it is something the players have become used to.

“Last year, nothing was normal,” he said. “Everything is strange, but I don’t think we are running the risk of undervaluing the game.

“We had some problems a few years ago so we know the importance of it. I’m not worried about the mental approach.

“We need to win, we need to play a good game and then two more games.”

Chiellini spoke admiringly of Northern Ireland’s performances against Holland and Germany in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, but agreed Italy were clear favourites for a reason.

“If you are able to do what you can do then you will win because they lack something technically,” he said of Northern Ireland.

“But you cannot take it for granted because we have not been together for four months and it is a long time…we might be a bit rusty.”

As has long been the way with the best Italian sides, recent success has been built on defensive stability, with only three goals conceded in the last 12 games.

Mancini will be without Chelsea midfielder Jorginho through injury while Inter Milan duo Stefano Sensi and Nicolo Barella were only allowed to join up with the squad late due to a coronavirus outbreak at their club.

The coach, a Premier League winner with Manchester City nine years ago, might know what to expect from a “typical British side” but Mancini said facing Northern Ireland was not the same as competing in the English top-flight.

“Their play is not the classical Anglo-Saxon Premier League way of playing football,” he said. “They are very physical, they defend very well.

“They don’t concede too much space, they are very good when they steal the ball and they go on the counter-attack.

“It’s a bit different from the Premier League way of playing but they have technical and physical qualities so they are ‘British’ in that regard.”

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