Slovenia expecting Italy win in Euro 2012 qualifier
Ljubljana: Not so many years ago this fixture would have been considered an away banker but it says much for the development of football in Slovenia recently that they are expecting to beat Italy.
The two face off on Friday in a Group C top of the table clash that could go some way to demonstrating which side is better equipped to take the one automatic place on offer for Euro 2012.
Italy lead the group on 10 points and are unbeaten in their four group games so far, although three of those were against minnows Estonia, Northern Ireland and Faroe Islands while the fourth against Serbia was handed to them after it was called off following crowd violence by Serb fans.
Slovenia have made a decent start themselves and trail Italy by three points having earned a win away to Estonia and a draw in Serbia.
However, a shock home defeat to unbeaten Northern Ireland, who also drew at home to Italy, has set them back a little.
Even so former striker and national hero Zlatko Zahovic, who holds his country`s record for caps and goals, believes that they have every reason to feel they can roll over this Italian team.
"I like Italian football, I have a lot of respect for it but you have many problems, you`re in a transition phase," he told Italian newspaper.
"Your teams are comprised only of foreigners. (Cesare) Prandelli is a great coach but he`s struggling to pick his squads because there aren`t many players at the big clubs.
"And whereas our (football) school has improved a lot, you only have two or three good players.”
"Once upon a time there were (Paolo) Maldini, (Roberto) Baggio.... Now you get excited about (Inter Milan centre-back Andrea) Ranocchia," who has now been ruled out with injury.
"Well, he wouldn`t get in our team, he`s too slow and if he plays against us, everyone will be targeting him."
Slovenia`s rise through the ranks of world football has been highly impressive since the country slipped out of the old Yugoslavia.
In 1993 they were ranked 134th in the world and now sit 17th.
That is no mean feat for a small country of two million inhabitants and only 35,000 players, including amateurs.
And yet they qualified for the 2002 and 2010 World Cups as well as Euro 2000 while they have previous with Italy, having beaten them 1-0 at home in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, which Italy went on to win.
The two sides will also be fairly familiar as Slovenia goalkeeper Samir Handanovic plays for Udinese and Palermo count Josip Ilicic, Armin Bacinovic and Sinisa Andelkovic among their numbers.
It is not just Zahovic who believes Italy are short on quality, earlier in the week Prandelli admitted that if the country`s qualification depended on it, he would have cast his eye on the old guard and called up veterans Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero to give the side a boost.
But despite that and Zahovic`s criticisms, Italy midfielder and Lazio captain Stefano Mauri believes the 2006 world champions are better than many people realise.
"We have enough quality in this squad to achieve our objectives, even if maybe we have less than in the past," he said.
"I consider what Prandelli said to be a stimulus for those who are here, to make us give something extra.”
"And let`s not forget that if we win in Slovenia then theoretically we will have as good as qualified."
Italy are currently sitting quite comfortably at the top of the group but should they lose in Ljubljana then they could find themselves under pressure before their next game at home to Estonia in June as Slovenia, Northern Ireland and Serbia will all be playing next week as well.
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