The end of the group phase of the inaugural UEFA Nations League takes place this week and Group 3 in League A is one of many that is set to have a dramatic, tense finale.
Italy welcome Portugal to Milan knowing that nothing but victory will do while the Portuguese, with an extra game in hand, need only a point to win their group and progress to the play-offs next June.
On Saturday evening when Italy and Portugal step out onto the hallowed turf of the San Siro, it will be exactly one year and four days since one of the worst nights in Italian football. Twelve months earlier, in the very same venue, Sweden came to Italy protecting a 1-0 lead in the 2018 World Cup play-off second leg. Unfancied and unfashionable, the Swedes came to the fashion capital of the world, defended for their lives and took with them the most expensive prize of all leaving Italian football shattered in the process.
369 days later, the Azzurri look to banish a memory that looks to have left an indelible mark on football in this part of the world. They take on the European champions looking to book their ticket to the play-offs that would contribute greatly to the restoration work that has been going on in Bel Paese because it hasn't been quite so beautiful lately for the passionate supporters of one of the great nations in international football.
A disappointing start to this group saw Italy held to a 1-1 draw in Bologna in their match with Poland and a narrow 1-0 defeat in Lisbon in September to group leaders Portugal had left Italian hopes hanging by a thread. A very late winner in Poland last time out keeps their chances alive but the task is very clear, they must beat Portugal and hope that the Portuguese fail to win in Guimaraes against relegated Poland on Tuesday.
In short, Italy really need a lot of chips to fall in their favour, they have to win by more than one to trump Portugal in the head-to-head record and then, of course, hope that three points are not in the crystal ball for Portugal on their visit to the Cradle City. They must simply do all they can first and hope that situations elsewhere do indeed favour them. A victory gives them an opportunity to believe again and twelve months on from a night that all belief was lost, that will be very welcome indeed for La Nazionale.
There hasn't been a lot that has gone wrong for Portugal on the international scene lately. They are enjoying one of their most successful periods in their history and while their World Cup defeat to Uruguay was disappointing, they have bounced back in what is fast becoming typical fashion by topping their Nations League group with two wins from two and looking very much like they will complete the job over the next two matches and qualify for the play-offs.
This was not an easy group by any means but Portugal were able to show their new found mean streak once again and calmly dispatched of Italy at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon on opening night before a 3-2 victory in Chorzow against Poland made even more impressive by the fact they initially fell behind in the match. Six points from six and two points clear at the top. Not much else can be asked for from the Portuguese public.
The biggest positive to take away from this group so far for Portugal is that they have gotten themselves into this position without the help of Cristiano Ronaldo. This is a side that has relied on their superstar front man for a while now and at times shown they were incapable to perform when he was not available. That has changed now. The likes of Andre Silva and Bernardo Silva are stepping up to the plate in a side full of potential and exciting talent. Sure, they'd rather have Ronaldo available but it will be a very comforting feeling for the Portuguese that they can do it without him, also.
So, a draw will do on Saturday night. Portugal have lost only two of their last twenty-six in normal time and haven't tasted an away defeat, outside the World Cup, since they were beaten on the first night of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers by Switzerland in Basel in 2016. With Italy winning only two of their last eleven, confidence will be high heading to the San Siro for the Portuguese.
Italy have never been able to cite a lack of experience for any failings in the last few years but they come into this game with a selection of players that are all relatively new to the international scene. The departure of players such as the great Gianluigi Buffon, Danielle de Rossi and Andrea Barzagli has left an inexperienced selection that is most unusual for the Italians.
Ciro Immobile and Marco Verratti, for example, are the most capped in their positions with 34 and 27 caps each, Jorginho with 12 is the next most experienced in midfield next to Verratti.
Defensively, the Italians don't have the same issue with Giorgio Chiellini, set to win his 100th cap, and Leonardo Bonucci marshalling the back line as they always have done while between the sticks stands the heir to the Buffon throne, Gianluigi Donnarumma. The AC Milan goalkeeper is the number one despite trailing Torino goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu in caps.
Italy will be without Juventus' Federico Bernadeschi while several uncapped players make the squad. Vincenzo Grifo, Leonardo Pavoletti, Sandro Tonali, Stefano Sensi and goalkeeper Alessio Cragno are all involved but given the magnitude of the match, they will be unlikely to make their international bow on Saturday night.
Portugal are without Ronaldo once again in the Nations League but have proven themselves more than adept at covering for his absence. Andre Silva is the top scorer in the squad and has a great record of 14 goals in 29 appearances. He will be looked upon again to provide the ammunition to seal their progression.
This Portuguese side has experience in abundance. Rui Patricio in goal boasts 76 caps while Pepe in defence boasts 102 caps on his own alongside Jose Fonte, Cedric and Raphael Guerreiro with 35, 33 and 28 respectively. William Carvalho has been a key player for Portugal and has a half-century of caps at the age of 26.
Ruben Neves at just 21 has eight caps to his name and will surely win many more while Bruma, Rafa Silva and Valencia's Goncalo Guedes are all beginning to feature more prominently for the national side. With no uncapped players at all, this is a Portuguese side that has quality players at its disposal all across the board.
Head to head
Saturday will mark the 27th meeting between Italy and Portugal in international football and it is a fixture that the Italians have maintained the upper hand in throughout its history.
In fact, it isn't so much the upper hand, more sheer domination by Italy. They have won eighteen of the twenty-six fixtures, scored a staggering fifty-one goals and have lost only six times to the Portuguese, who have only breached the Italian defence twenty-three times in those matches.
Two of those six victories for Portugal have come in the last three years. Before their 1-0 wins in September and in a 2015 friendly, the Portuguese had lost their previous six encounters and hadn't won since a 1976 friendly at the Estadio Jose Alvalade in Lisbon. They had also only beaten Italy in competitive action once, in 1957, a 3-0 victory at the historic Estadio Nacional and they have never won on Italian soil against their opponents either.
It is quite the staggering change in fortunes for both sides in the last few years but those statistics have to give hope to the Italians that they can turn over the Portuguese like they have done so many times before. A 3-0 victory, like the one achieved at the San Siro in 1987, would be most welcome to a side that hasn't had much to celebrate about recently and a side that are hoping to turn that dark November night of twelve months ago into a November night to remember twelve months later.