Antonio Conte calls on Italy `pride` for Croatia

AFP| Updated: Nov 16, 2014, 17:48 PM IST
Antonio Conte calls on Italy `pride` for Croatia

Italy coach Antonio Conte has called for the Azzurri to swell with pride when they take to a rain-battered San Siro pitch against Croatia in a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier later Sunday.

Italy face their first big test of the qualifying campaign having won their first three games against Norway, Malta and Azerbaijan to sit second in Group H behind Croatia on goals difference.

The Azzurri have failed to beat Croatia in their past six meetings, their last win coming in Genoa in 1942, but Conte said his men have no reason to fear Niko Kovac`s visitors.

"We should be proud when we line up to take on Croatia," Conte told reporters at the San Siro.

"We respect them because they`re a side that are good at keeping possession and are strong on one-on-one situations, but we don`t fear them.

"We have to be careful not to get sucked into ball-watching. But we`ve studied them well, we know in which areas we can create problems and we have to try to try to provoke that without exposing ourselves too much."

Heavy rain in Milan in recent days had prompted fears that Sunday`s Group H clash, scheduled for 1945 GMT, would have to be postponed with Croatia coach Niko Kovac complaining of the state of the San Siro pitch. 

"If the pitch stays like this, the game can`t go ahead. The ball doesn`t bounce, it would be like a game of waterpolo," he told reporters.

But as Milan awoke to blazing sunshine on Sunday morning, Italian football federation (FIGC) officials were quick to allay fears.

"There are no fears over the game. It will go ahead as scheduled," FIGC spokesman Paolo Corbi told AFP.

Corbi admitted the pitch is "likely to be a little heavy", but he added: "There are no major problems. It is a sunny day today and the pitch will be ready in time for tonight`s game."

Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli and Juventus defender Angelo Ogbonna are ruled out after being sent home from Italy`s training camp on Friday with hamstring and thigh injuries respectively.

Midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti will also be missing from Conte`s traditional 3-5-2 formation with Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi, who will pick up his 100th cap, set to marshall the midfield.

Sassuolo`s Simone Zaza and Ciro Immobile of Borussia Dortmund should spearhead Italy`s attack as the hosts bid to claim a first win over Croatia in 72 years (although Croatia was part of the former Yugoslavia from WWII until 1992).

Conte, who led his side to a 2-0 friendly win over the Netherlands in his first game in charge, said despite injury absences the mood in the Azzurri camp is good. 

"The spirit I`ve seen has been great over the first four games, and I`m sure it will be the same against Croatia," he said.

"We`re ready for Croatia."