Milan (AFP) – Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura has warned a slip-up against minnows Albania would dent the Azzurri’s 2018 World Cup qualifying hopes even before a likely group decider away to Spain.
Ventura, who succeeded Chelsea manager Antonio Conte after he led Italy to a commendable quarter-place finish at Euro 2016, has steered Italy to three wins and a draw in their four qualifiers so far.
But with only one team automatically qualifying for Russia 2018, Italy will be forced to a play-off if they finish second to Spain, who lead Group G ahead of Italy on goal difference.
After being held to a 1-1 draw by La Roja in Turin last October, Italy’s World Cup chances may hinge on the return fixture on September 2.
First, though, comes Albania and Ventura, who called the fixture “extremely important”, acknowledged the Azzurri fans may be in the minority at the Barbera Stadium on Friday.
“There’s no fear, but the result against Albania is extremely important ahead of playing Spain in September,” Ventura said at the team’s Coverciano training base.
“I’ve lost a lot of players to injury, including (Alessandro) Florenzi, (Giacomo) Bonaventura, (Andrea) Barzagli, (Giorgio) Chiellini and (Claudio) Marchisio.
“I’ve told Marchisio and Chiellini I will be counting on them when they are fit enough to return. In the meantime, I expect us to produce solid performances, because we are Italy.
“If we make it to the World Cup, I’m sure we can go on to create a surprise, because the players are hungry for recognition and for success.”
Ventura has seen first-hand the power of Albania’s fans, who packed Marseille’s Stade Velodrome for a 2-0 Euro 2016 defeat to hosts France on what was their debut in a men’s major football tournament.
And he expects a repeat in Sicily.
“I was in Marseille, when three-quarters of the stadium was filled with Albanian supporters,” said Ventura.
“And I have Albanian friends who’ve assured me it will be the same in Palermo.”
Albania travel to Palermo on the back of wins over Macedonia and Liechtenstein and defeat to Spain and Israel.
– New faces –
Ventura, meanwhile, has been forced to bring in five new faces to his 27-man squad, that will also face the Netherlands in an Amsterdam friendly next Tuesday, due to a rash of injuries.
Ventura has called up Inter Milan defender Danilo D’Ambrosio, Atalanta defender Leonardo Spinazzola, Bologna winger Simone Verdi and Atalanta striker Andrea Petagna.