Italy await for jubilant World Cup qualifier Nigeria
London, November 17, 2013
First Published: 08:23 IST(17/11/2013)
Last Updated: 08:26 IST(17/11/2013)
Nigeria will have precious little time to celebrate their qualification for the World Cup, with a friendly game against European heavyweights Italy scheduled to take place in London on Monday.
The fixture at Fulham's Craven Cottage stadium will kick off a little over 48 hours after the African champions won 2-0 against Ethiopia in Calabar on Saturday to qualify for next year's football extravaganza in Brazil.
Given the prohibitive timeframe, Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi is expected to use Monday's match to test the depth of his squad, but his players are eager to finish the year in positive fashion.
"This is an important game for us as we begin our build-up to next year's World Cup and so we have to take it very seriously," said Sporting Braga left-back Elderson Echiejile.
"A good result against one of the top teams in the world will also help our FIFA ranking leading up to the main draw for the World Cup."
Nigeria will hope to draw inspiration from their only previous meeting with Italy, which took place at the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Appearing at the tournament for the first time, Nigeria came within two minutes of a stunning victory over Arrigo Sacchi's side in a last-16 tie in Massachusetts, only for Roberto Baggio to force extra time with an 88th-minute equaliser before settling the game from the penalty spot.
Italy went on to lose the final to Brazil, Baggio missing the decisive spot-kick in a penalty shootout, but Nigeria are now seasoned World Cup campaigners and will be appearing at their fifth tournament next year.
Beaten semi-finalists at this year's Confederations Cup in Brazil, where Nigeria went out in the group phase, Italy are bidding to return to winning ways after a run of three successive draws.
They drew 1-1 with Germany in Milan on Friday, but coach Cesare Prandelli says that his side have a long way to go before they can be considered World Cup contenders.
"At the World Cup we can do unbelievable things, but we can't say we'll be going to Brazil to win the title, nor that we are the strongest team. We're really not," he said.
"We're a good squad, but we need to be humble, all of us, and we need to have optimal physical condition on the pitch.
"If we have these ingredients, if we know how to take our chances, then we can play some top-quality games."
Mario Balotelli has gone six games without scoring for club and country, but Prandelli has backed the 23-year-old AC Milan striker to rediscover his scoring touch.
"He's not happy when he doesn't score," said the Azzurri coach.
"I told the lad he did well (against Germany), but he wasn't satisfied. That's just the way he is."
Balotelli is likely to have a new strike partner against Nigeria, with in-form Fiorentina frontman Giuseppe Rossi expected to come in for Dani Osvaldo after flu-like symptoms kept him on the bench at San Siro.
However, Juventus centre-back Andrea Barzagli will miss the game with an adductor injury.