With Cyprus ranked 65th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and Italy second only to European champions Spain, the Cypriots are given little chance of success in their opening European Group 8 qualifier on Saturday. But Cyprus' Greek coach Angelos Anastassiades says he has every confidence that his team can get a result at home in the David and Goliath clash.
"I've got faith in my lads. I'm optimistic because of the players I have in the national team and the determination and passion that they possess," Anastassiades told reporters on Tuesday. "Naturally our aim is to win the game, the issue is how do we achieve this target," he added.
The coach's main bone of contention leading up to the match was the lack of time available to him to prepare his players as Cyprus' league games stretched across the weekend into Monday.
Cyprus are hoping to repeat the kind of performances that saw them knock five goals past Ireland, trash Wales 3-1 and draw 1-1 with Germany in the UEFA EURO 2008 qualifiers.
Anastassiades will again rely on much the same squad that made headlines in that competition, especially at home. The backbone of the side will feature players from APOEL, Omonia and Anorthosis Famagusta. Anorthosis became the first Cypriot club to reach the UEFA Champions League group stage, where they were drawn against Italian Serie A winners Inter Milan.
The unprecedented success of Cypriot teams in Europe has caught the public's imagination, making this contest an eagerly anticipated one. "," Cyprus captain Ioannis Okkas told reporters.
We face a very strong and famous opponent, we know their strengths but the national team has made a leap forward
"We don't have our heads in the clouds. On Saturday, with the help of the crowd, we can achieve something good, as we did against Germany and Ireland," added the Omonia striker. Although Cyprus were trounced 4-1 in a recent friendly in Switzerland, the performance of Cypriot wonderkid Demetris Christofi was a plus.
Larnaca's compact Antonis Papadopoulos stadium is expected to be full to its near 10,000 capacity, providing an uncomfortable atmosphere for the Italians. Anorthosis' stadium is not Cyprus' usual home, but it was the venue of an historic 3-2 victory against Spain in 1998.
Back at the helm
The game also marks the competitive return of Italy coach Marcello Lippi at helm of the Azzurri once again after the FIFA World Cup winner was recalled to replace Roberto Donadoni after EURO 2008. Bayern Munich striker Luca Toni and Real Madrid defender Fabio Cannavaro, who sat out the Austria friendly due to light injuries, are back in the side.
Toni is one of those who is hoping to make up for a poor EURO 2008 by bouncing back in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers. "I suffered because I didn't score even one goal," he said. "I'm not saying I was massacred, but there were critics. But we were unlucky." The former Fiorentina man is likely to get another chance, particularly as Lippi has left Sampdoria forward Antonio Cassano out of his squad.
The pressure will be on the Azzurri, who have not lived up to their billing since winning the FIFA World Cup two years ago. They began their EURO 2008 qualifying campaign badly by losing 3-1 in France and drawing 1-1 at home to Lithuania, before eventually coming back to win 2-1 in Scotland to ensure qualification.
But they were hammered 3-0 by the Netherlands in their opening match in Switzerland, before going on to lose to Spain in the quarter-finals. Donadoni paid for that failure with his job but things did not start well for Lippi, as Italy could only draw 2-2 with Austria in a friendly in Nice last month.
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