Italy centre-back Giorgio Chiellini said on Wednesday that Northern Ireland will be no push-overs at Windsor Park in Belfast in Friday's UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier.
Italy go into the double header - with Serbia up next in Genoa on Tuesday - leading Group C after two wins from two games. Those were against minnows Estonia and the Faroe Islands, but Chiellini is expecting the Irish to provide a much sterner test.
"These are crucial matches. Starting with Ireland, who only just missed out on the World Cup and they get excited at home," he said. "We have to be ready for a sporting battle. Serbia are more technical but they are two equally difficult matches."
Looking ahead to the Serbia match, Chiellini will come to face to face with Juventus team-mate Milos Krasic, an instant success in Turin having arrived from CSKA Moscow in the summer.
"When we bought him I was one of the first to say he would fit in well; of course I didn't think he would do so quite as quickly," said the centre-back, and Chiellini joked: "So far he's the one who has given us a bit extra. I hope he'll get a bout of 'flu before the game. If I can give him a kick I will, even though (Juve coach Luigi) Delneri told me not to hurt him as we need him."
Turning his attentions to the Serie A title race, Chiellini admitted that Inter Milan are still the favourites, although he believes his team can show a marked improvement on last season.
"Inter are still the best, even though we hope they've lost a bit of hunger to win," he said. "The truth is we need to take a step up in quality against the weaker sides, we need to do better when it's up to us to force the game. This year it's fundamental that we qualify for the Champions League, from every perspective."