Italy’s reward for topping their group and being the first team to reach the knock-out stages at Euro 2016 will be a last 16 meeting with defending champions Spain. That won’t have been what manager Antonio Conte had in mind.
The Azzurri are guaranteed to finish first in Group E even if they lose their final group game against the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday. That is because Conte’s side have a better head to head record against Belgium who they beat in their opening game.
However Ivan Perišić’s late goal for Croatia against Spain on Tuesday night meant that the latter surprisingly ended up finishing second in Group D. It now means that the defending champions will face the Italian’s in Paris on Monday evening.
How many changes will Italy make?
With that set in stone, the dilemma for Conte now is: how many players does he rest for the encounter with the Irish? Martin O’Neil’s side need to win the game to progress to the knock-out stages.
After drawing with Sweden in their opening game Ireland were comfortably beaten by the Belgians last Saturday and will need to improve if they are to beat a well-organised Italian side- regardless of how many changes they make.
With Leonardo Bonucci, Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Éder and Thiago Motta all one booking away from a one game suspension, Conte has already admitted that he plans to rest a number of players who featured in the opening two games.
After playing against both Belgium and Sweden, Antonio Candreva has picked up a thigh injury so is expected to be rested. The situation could provide opportunities for the likes of goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, West Ham’s Angelo Ogbonna and Roma’s Stephan El Shaarawy.
Win or bust for Ireland
Despite the many permutations surrounding the new format at the Championships, the scenario for Ireland is simple – win and they go through, anything else and they will be on the next plane home.
O’Neil could change his formation to try and give Shane Long more support upfront after the striker was staved of service against the Belgians in Bordeaux.
Jonathan Walters remains a major doubt after missing the last game with an Achilles injury. That means Daryl Murphy or 35-year-old Robbie Keane could assist Long at the head of Ireland’s attack.
“Six months ago, if you thought you had to win your last game to qualify, and there's a fairly decent chance of that ... I think you would have taken it,” said O’Neil, who masterminded a memorable victory over World Cup champions Germany in qualifying back in October.
“We have to concentrate on what we're going to do, and make sure we're in front when the final whistle blows."
Midfielders Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan are all one yellow card away from a one game suspension, however that won’t matter if Ireland don’t progress.
Everton’s McCarthy is the most likely to miss out after he struggled in the defeat to Belgium.