Football: Italy wary of potential banana skin in Albania

Italy's head coach Gian Piero Ventura during a press conference on the eve of the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying soccer match Italy vs Albania at Renzo Barbera stadium in Palermo, Sicily island, Italy on March 23, 2017.
Italy's head coach Gian Piero Ventura during a press conference on the eve of the FIFA World Cup 2018 qualifying soccer match Italy vs Albania at Renzo Barbera stadium in Palermo, Sicily island, Italy on March 23, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

Milan (AFP) - Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura has warned a slip up against minnows Albania would dent the Azzurri's 2018 World Cup qualifying hopes even before a likely group decider away to Spain.

Ventura, who succeeded Chelsea manager Antonio Conte after he led Italy to a commendable quarter-final finish at Euro 2016, has steered Italy to three wins and a draw in their four qualifiers so far.

But with only one team automatically qualifying for Russia 2018, Italy will be forced into a play-off match if they finish second to Spain, who lead Group G ahead of Italy on goal difference.

After being held to a 1-1 draw by La Roja in Turin last October, Italy's World Cup chances may hinge on the return fixture on Sept 2.

First, though, comes Albania and Ventura, who called the fixture "extremely important", acknowledged the Azzurri fans may be in the minority at the Barbera Stadium on Friday.

"There's no fear, but the result against Albania is extremely important ahead of playing Spain in September," Ventura said at the team's Coverciano training base.

"I've lost a lot of players to injury, including (Alessandro) Florenzi, (Giacomo) Bonaventura, (Andrea) Barzagli, (Giorgio) Chiellini and (Claudio) Marchisio.

"I've told Marchisio and Chiellini, I will be counting on them when they are fit enough to return. In the meantime, I expect us to produce solid performances, because we are Italy.

"If we make it to the World Cup, I'm sure we can go on to create a surprise, because the players are hungry for recognition and for success."

Ventura has seen first hand the power of Albania's fans, who packed Marseille's Stade Velodrome for a 2-0 Euro 2016 defeat to hosts France on what was their debut in a men's major football tournament. And he expects a repeat in Sicily.

"I was in Marseille, when three-quarters of the stadium was filled with Albanian supporters," said Ventura. "And I have Albanian friends who've assured me it will be the same in Palermo."

Albania travel to Palermo on the back of wins over Macedonia and Liechtenstein and defeats to Spain and Israel.

Ventura, meanwhile, has been forced to bring in five new faces to his 27-man squad, that will also face the Netherlands in an Amsterdam friendly next Tuesday, due to a rash of injuries.

Ventura has called up Inter Milan defender Danilo D'Ambrosio, Atalanta defender Leonardo Spinazzola, Bologna winger Simone Verdi and Atalanta striker Andrea Petagna.

He was also forced to call up Serie B goalkeeper Alex Meret, who plays for SPAL, on loan from Udinese, due to injuries suffered by reserve goalkeepers Mattia Perin (Genoa) and Federico Marchetti (Lazio).

Although Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is set to earn his 168th Azzurri cap, Ventura is looking to the future with AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma being considered as Buffon's natural heir.

The inclusion of several other emerging Serie A players is a sign of looking towards the future, according to Ventura.

"The young guys are the future of this squad and we want to give them time to develop," said Ventura.

"Both Spinazzola and Petagna, for example, were involved in our training camps, and now they're with the squad."

One notable player still missing is Nice striker Mario Balotelli, who has yet to convince Ventura that he is worth a first call up since being made the scapegoat for Italy's dismal first-round exit from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.