Prandelli expects 'tough' Bulgaria test
Four-time champions Italy will hope forced personnel changes do not disrupt their aim of edging closer towards 2014 World Cup qualification when they host Bulgaria in Palermo on Friday.
Italy, who last won the trophy in 2006, top qualifying Group B with a four and five-point cushion over Bulgaria and the Czech Republic respectively with four games remaining in the campaign.
However the absence of five key players, including AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli, has forced coach Cesare Prandelli into changes that could make the first of two qualifiers within a week tougher than anticipated.
Italy struggled to a 2-2 draw against Bulgaria in Sofia this time last year and Prandelli is taking nothing for granted.
"On Friday we're expecting a difficult match against a tough opponent and since we want to win we're counting on the quality of our midfield and our wingers," said Prandelli, who led Italy to the final of Euro 2012 two years after succeding Marcello Lippi in the wake of the Azzurri's first-round exit from the 2010 World Cup.
As well as Balotelli, who earned a one-match suspension for a sending-off during a scoreless draw with the Czech Republic in June, striker Pablo Osvaldo (Southampton) and midfielder Riccardo Montolivo (AC Milan) are also suspended while midfielder Claudio Marchisio and defender Andrea Barzagli (both Juventus) are injured.
Prandelli is likely to field a 4-3-2-1 formation, with Ignazio Abate (Milan) and Genoa's Luca Antonelli flanking Juventus's well-oiled central-defensive pairing of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini.
Unsurprisingly, Juventus goalkeeper and Italy skipper Gianluigi Buffon is available and set to earn his 135th cap - one short of Fabio Cannavaro's all-time national record of 136.
Experienced campaigner Andrea Pirlo (Juventus) should orchestrate a three-man defensive midfield alongside Daniele De Rossi (AS Roma) and Brazilian-born Thiago Motta (Paris St Germain), who is set to make his first appearance since Italy's 4-0 Euro 2012 final defeat to Spain.
Motta is quietly dreaming of featuring in the World Cup finals in the country of his birth and while "happy to be back in the Italy shirt", his focus is on the job at hand.
"Now we have to start focusing on Bulgaria and the Czech Republic," said Motta.
Antonio Candreva (Lazio) and Emanuele Giaccherini (Sunderland) could occupy the attacking midfield roles with one of them likely given a free role to roam.
Prandelli also tested Napoli forward Lorenzo Insigne in Giaccherini's position in training this week, while Alberto Gilardino (Genoa) should occupy the lone striker's position.
Bulgaria, meanwhile, have one eye on snatching a share of the points in Palermo having caused Italy plenty of problems in Sofia last September.
A draw would give Luboslav Penev's men, who have failed to qualify for the finals since 1998, a huge boost as they take aim at securing second place in Group B.
Bulgaria's next meeting is away to Malta on Tuesday, when Italy host the Czechs in Turin.
In the city of his club side Juventus, Buffon should earn his 136th cap and draw level with retired Cannavaro. And the 35-year-old said Wednesday he has no intention of hanging up his gloves.
"If one day they don't call me up or put me on the subs' bench for the good of the national team, no problem," said Buffon.
"I'm not the president or the owner of the national team, but I won't say my farewells until I am told I'm no longer wanted."