Fri, Jun 01, 2012 - Page 18 News List

Match-fixing and quake disrupt Italy

AFP, Rome

Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon practises during a training session in Coverciano, Italy, on Wednesday.

Photo: Reuters

At first glance, Italy’s Euro 2012 preparations could not be going any worse and today they play their only pre-tournament friendly against Russia in Zurich, Switzerland.

Things seemed to be moving smoothly until early this week, but since then the walls have come crashing down.

A coordinated police raid into match-fixing saw Italy fullback Domenico Criscito woken up just after 6am on Monday to have his room at Italy’s training base just outside Florence searched.

Criscito had been implicated in the “Calcioscommesse” or soccer-betting scandal and that would cost him his place in Italy’s 23-man squad that is to travel to Poland and Ukraine.

Coach Cesare Prandelli was forced into a late change, ditching Criscito, who is usually his first choice leftback, and replacing him with Palermo’s Federico Balzaretti.

Worse was to follow 24 hours later as an earthquake in the Emilia Romagna region forced Tuesday’s friendly against Luxembourg in Parma to be called off.

Italy’s chance to prepare for next month’s tournament finally arrives today in Switzerland, but Prandelli has precious little time to experiment.

He really needs to select the team that is to line up on June 10 in their first Group C clash against world champions and holders Spain.

It means there is added pressure on a team who have already been written off as a shadow of some of the glorious Italy sides of the past.

They have a tough group with Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland and Slaven Bilic’s Croatia rounding out the competition.

Just getting to the knockout round will be a test, despite midfield playmaker Andrea Pirlo’s assertion that they are expecting to reach at least the last four.

Their one saving grace perhaps is the less than impressive form of their opponents in Zurich.

Russia have already played two warm-up games, drawing 1-1 with World Cup semi-finalist’s Uruguay in Moscow, before a drab 0-0 stalemate against Lithuania in Switzerland.

Even the most fervent Russian fan would readily admit this is far from a great Russia team, with an ageing and underperforming squad who failed to even reach the last World Cup.

That will at least reduce the likelihood of Italys players suffering a morale-sapping defeat ahead of the championships.

Then there also is the well-documented fact that Italy’s last two World Cup victories in 2006 and 1982 followed match-fixing scandals. A good omen for their chances in Poland and Ukraine, but for the fact that this is a team in the process of rebuilding.

While the defense and midfield are largely established, with Villarreal forward Giuseppe Rossi missing out through injury and Antonio Cassano only just back from a heart operation, the forward pair have little experience playing together.

Cassano is likely to start alongside Mario Balotelli, but the two have hardly played together before.

Not that there will be any options for greater synthesis in the forward positions with Antonio Di Natale just back into the squad after a two-year hiatus, while Fabio Borini is a total newcomer and Sebastien Giovinco is a relative one.

Italy have a lot of work yet to do, but then again, so too have Russia.

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