The Caucasian minnows are an unknown quantity for the Azzurri, as the two nations have never met on the football pitch since Armenia gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Italy enter the match level on four points with Bulgaria at the top of Group B, but sit in first place on account of a stronger goal differential, whilst their opposition lie a point behind in third place.
La Nazionale will look increase their lead in the qualifying group with a win on the road, having started off the campaign with a stuttering 2-2 draw in Sofia with the Bulgarians, and a wasteful 2-0 victory over bottom-seeded Malta at the Stadio Alberto Braglia in Modena. Armenia will look to bounce back from a 0-1 defeat to Bulgaria, in which they picked up two rapid red cards in the second half, and return to the form that saw them open qualifying with a well deserved 0-1 win against the Maltese on the road.
Italy boss Cesare Prandelli appears set to make five personnel changes to the starting squad that faced Malta, with reports already emerging detailing the alleged first eleven. Tactically, the former Fiorentina manager will again employ his classic 4-3-1-2 in lieu of the 3-5-2 Italy have experimented with on several occasions, including in the 1-1 draw with Spain in group play at the European Championships this past summer. The Azzurri struggled with the three man defense against Bulgaria, suffering greatly in achieving only 35% of possession throughout the match without Giorgio Chiellini’s confident presence at the back to complement the skills of club teammates Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.
Curiously enough, Prandelli looks to be preparing to drop Chiellini completely from the starting lineup, with talk surrounding Coverciano suggesting that he does not believe the Juventus man to be suited to a four man backline. Instead, Domenico Criscito will figure into left back role for the first time since he was sent home prior to Euro 2012 in the wake of Calcioscommesse accusations, with Barzagli and Bonucci occupying the middle and the versatile Christian Maggio playing on the right flank. Captain Gianluigi Buffon will be between the sticks as usual to round out Italy’s force in the defensive third.
Riccardo Montolivo will replace Alessandro Diamanti at the trequartista role, whilst Daniele De Rossi will likely be fielded in place of Antonio Nocerino, as the Roman has recovered from an injury aggravated in the Bulgaria that kept him out of the Malta match and two subsequent Serie A fixtures.
De Rossi has entered the international break in the midst of some controversy, as the highly sought after midfielder was omitted from the teamsheet by Giallorossi coach Zdenek Zeman in Roma’s 2-0 win over the weekend, but Prandelli has assured that such a decision has not affected his place in the national set-up. Juventus and Azzurri stalwarts Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio will occupy their usual positions in the centre of the park to complete Italy’s midfield diamond.
In attack, Mario Balotelli figures to start upon his return to La Nazionale following laser eye surgery, which prevented him from participating in Italy’s first two Group B matches. The controversial striker will plausibly be paired with either Pablo Daniel Osvaldo or Sebastian Giovinco, both of whom were tested alongside Balotelli in training by Prandelli at Coverciano. Parallel to De Rossi, Osvaldo was also dropped by Zeman over the weekend, but the Argentine-Italian’s brace against Bulgaria coupled with Giovinco’s poor historical performances for Italy seem to suggest that he will ultimately get the nod over the diminutive Juventus man.
Armenia are likely to run out in a standard 4-4-2 formation, fielding a young side in which only three outfield players are over the age of 25. Their captain, 23 year-old attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, will have a morsel of information on a few of Italy’s players , having opposed Juventini Pirlo, Bonucci, Barzagli, Marchisio, and Giovinco recently with Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League. Mkhitaryan’s brief experience against these men will be of critical importance if Armenia are to steal any points against a giant of European and world football.
Italy probable lineup (4-3-1-2): Buffon; Maggio, Bonucci, Barzagli, Criscito; De Rossi, Pirlo, Marchisio; Montolivo; Osvaldo, Balotelli
Armenia probable lineup (4-4-2): Berezovsky; Mkoyan, Hayrapetyan, Arzumanyan, Hovsepyan; Ozbiliz, Yedigariyan, Mkhitaryan, Mkrtchyan; Sarkisov, Movsisyan
Statistic of the Match: Italy are 32-5-1 in 38 matches against former Soviet Union nations
Key Player: Mario Balotelli- The flamboyant Manchester City striker returns to the Italy lineup after missing the first two qualification matches on the back of poor form in the English Premier League. As the Italy coach displayed at Euro 2012 this summer, Prandelli has knack for getting the best out of Super Mario when others struggle with the task. If Balotelli is at his best, the Armenian defense could have a long game ahead of them.
Player to Watch: Marco Verratti- The 19 year-old PSG regista said this week he would “play anywhere, even in goal” just to get on the field against Armenia. It will be interesting to see if Prandelli throws the young starlet out there to see what he can do in international play.
Italy form: W-L-L-D-W
Armenia form: L-W-L-W-L