Serbia under pressure for Azzurri challenge
Vladimir Petrovic's team have had a poor start to qualifying, being held to a draw at home by Slovenia and then losing to minnows Estonia in their own back yard. It has left them with just four points from three games and, should they lose to Italy, they will be left with a mountain to climb if they are to reach Poland and Ukraine in two years time.
Their poor start is perhaps not surprising, though, given the internal troubles they have had with Raddy Antic being dismissed after two qualifying games and Petrovic jumping into the hot seat with no time to prepare. Not to mention that this comes on the back of their poor showing at the FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa.
Italy had a similarly underwhelming FIFA World Cup but the four-time world champions have seemingly rebounded in style, aided in some way by an easy start to qualifying. Italy's first three games were against the three weakest teams in the group - Estonia, Faroe Islands and Northern Ireland - and while they have been far from impressive, they have at least picked up enough points to go top.
They had to come from behind to win 2-1 in Estonia while they could not break down a stubborn Northern Ireland rearguard in a 0-0 draw in Belfast although they did at least thump the Faroes 5-0. Even so, this is their first big test and their biggest threat comes from a man they know well, Juventus forward Milos Krasic. Not only does the Serbia danger man play in Italy but so too does the country's captain, Dejan Stankovic of Inter Milan.
But it is Krasic who most concerns the hosts. "Everyone knows about Krasic's quality, he's a great player, very quick and in form," said Italy full-back Domenico Criscito. "He's a real danger. We'll definitely have to double up on him. Apart from anything else he managed to adapt quickly to our football and that's never easy, not everyone can do that."
Krasic has impressed in his first couple of months at Juve as part of their coach Luigi Del Neri's attacking system, the Serb scoring a hat-trick against Cagliari in his fourth league game. But it is not just the former CSKA Moscow man's ability that is troubling Italy, coach Cesare Prandelli actually believes it could work against his team to face a wounded animal.
"Estonia were described as a team of semi-amateurs but it's not the case," said Prandelli of Serbia's defeat. It's a very balanced group and there will be more surprises, such as Estonia's in Serbia. I would have preferred not to play a wounded Serbia, their defeat will complicate things."
The other thing that Prandelli has to solve is his team's troubles in front of goal. Although they dominated Northern Ireland, they failed to convert a number of chances. Prandelli earlier this week criticised his forwards for not concentrating enough in front of goal but Sampdoria striker Giampaolo Pazzini believes it's not important who finds the net, as long as the team wins. "It's always important to score but the most important thing is that we win," he said. "We'll score soon enough but I'd be more worried if we weren't creating chances."