Ranocchia: Italy can catch Spain
Italy may already have secured top spot in Group C, but defender Andrea Ranocchia hopes Gli Azzurri use the remaining two matches to prove their credentials as potential UEFA EURO 2012 winners. Cesare Prandelli's side are eight points clear at the summit and would be forgiven for taking their foot off the gas for their last two games, against second-placed Serbia and Northern Ireland.
But Prandelli has named a strong squad instead of taking the chance to look at some fringe players and Ranocchia, who started the last three qualifiers before being ruled out until after the international break by an adductor injury, wants to see his team-mates use the games to build towards the their campaign next summer.
"We have done very well, we've managed to qualify two matches before the end of the qualifying phase and that will give us time to work more precisely and focus on the finals," he told uefa.com. "Spain won the World Cup so they are top at the moment, but we are working hard at catching them up. I think we're on the right track. The expectations are to play a great EUROs and the results are building towards that. We hope for a good championship and to maybe even win it."
Serbia need three points from a possible six to assure second place and play-off spot, with Prandelli and company heading to Belgrade tomorrow before Vladimir Petrovic takes his team to Slovenia. The last time Petrovic's side played Italy, in Genoa last October, crowd trouble led to a 3-0 forfeit and the current ban affecting Serbia's home matches.
They will be hoping to remember this fixture for better reasons, but Petrovic is remaining cautious. "We must be clever and at our best physically. We can't make point calculations, that's not how football works," he said. "I want to see the best of my team and if that's the case I expect us to qualify for the play-offs."
If Serbia contrive to lose both of their matches, the door to the play-offs remains open - on a sliding scale of likelihood - to Estonia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland. Estonia, who surprisingly sit third, a point behind the Serbs, travel to Belfast for their final fixture, where they will try to repeat the 4-1 hammering they dealt out to Nigel Worthington's side in Tallinn. Worthington's hopes of earning a contract extension at the end of the current campaign tumbled after that result and he can expect a tough reaction from fans at Windsor Park on Friday.
But veteran defender Chris Baird, who will replace Fulham team-mate Aaron Hughes in central defence after the long-term captain was ruled out of a farewell appearance before retirement, has called for supporters to get behind the manager. "The fans know that it was three mistakes for three of the goals against Estonia last time and that's what really killed us," Baird told Press Association Sport. "They aren't silly, they know it was one of those nights and I even thought we played well at times. But this is an important match for us and for Nigel, so let's hope the fans come on Friday and get behind us."