19:45 BST, Monday 28th May, Kybunpark (St Gallen, Switzerland)
Monday sees the arrival of a World Cup warm-up match featuring one of the game’s historically most famous teams. Italy, though, have nothing to prepare for.
The Azzurri will miss out on the 2018 edition of the World Cup after infamously coming up short against a Sweden side in the UEFA zone play-offs.
It’s the first time since 1958 that the Italians have failed to qualify for the tournament. The four-time world champions will begin their rebuilding process when they meet Saudi Arabia on Monday for the first of a series of three friendlies.
The Saudis themselves will take this friendly seriously. It’ll be their first chance to prepare for their summer in Russia.
Despite a surprising attendance record overall, Saudi Arabia will be on the world stage for the first time since 2006. The Arab nation first qualified for the World Cup in 1994 where they reached the Last 16 in the USA. They then qualified for the next three editions.
Their route to Russia has not been without incident though. Although it was Bert van Marwijk who coached them through the qualifying stages, Saudi Arabia are now managed by the Argentinian Juan Antonio Pizzi who was only appointed in November of last year.
Without any adequate preparation with the team, Pizzi will be looking to introduce a more defensive game than the one encouraged by van Marwijk.
This is the first-ever meeting between these two nations and it will take place in a neutral venue in Switzerland.
Last Time Out
England 1-1 Italy
Italy’s last game came against England at Wembley at the end of March which ended in a 1-1 draw.
England led for most of the game after Jamie Vardy put the hosts ahead midway through the first period; the confidence of a side failing to qualify for a tournament with which they are almost synonymous clearly lacking.
Italy, though, kept themselves in the game and were given a lifeline, albeit contentiously through a VAR review, after James Tarkowski was adjudged to have fouled in the area. Lorenzo Insigne kept his nerve and snatched a draw for the visitors.
The Italians are winless in four games and were last victorious away at Albania back in October 2017.
Saudi Arabia 2-0 Greece
The last outing for the Saudis was on home turf as they recently welcomed a different a Greece side who were also sore from World Cup qualification failure.
Saudi Arabia play their home games at Riyadh’s impressive King Fahd Stadium, which holds almost 70,000 fans.
Salem Mohammed al Dawsari, who plies his trade in La Liga with Villareal, opened the scoring before Mohammed Kanoo doubled the hosts’ lead ten minutes from time.
The Saudi’s head into Monday’s game on the back of two 2-0 victories. They were last beaten at the end of March by Belgium.
As this is Roberto Mancini’s first game in charge, it is hard to know how exactly he will set his team up.
Expect new faces though: most notably Gianluigi Donnarumma coming into goal in place of the now-retired Gianluigi Buffon.
Saudi Arabia Lineup
Although Juan Antonio Pizzi has switched between the 4-3-3 formation and the 4-2-3-1 formation in recent friendlies, expect him to adopt the latter this time around as the double pivot will allow him to screen his defence more adequately.
Italy will be eager to put a woeful time and run of form behind them. Having not won for four matches, this is a tie that only a year or so ago would have looked a formality.
As it is, though, the Azzurri will welcome the Green Falcons with an element of underlying envy – they’ll feel as though they should be on the stage this summer.
The Saudi’s shouldn’t be underestimated, however. As regional World Cup qualifying campaigns go, the AFC (Asia) region rarely gets the same level of coverage as perhaps the UEFA or CONMEBOL regions might.
This always gives sides from this part of the world the element of surprise, no less in Saudi Arabia’s case. They qualified impressively, in a campaign which began way back in June 2015.
Navigating two group stages, the Arab nation pipped Australia to the second of two automatic qualifying slots by beating Japan 1-0 at home in the final round of matches, sending the Socceroos to the playoffs.
Prediction: Italy 2-1 Saudi Arabia
The Saudi’s will want to test themselves and gain as much knowledge and confidence as they can before heading to Russia.
Monday’s fixture is their first of three as they face Peru and Germany soon after – a set of fixtures that will definitely give them they warm up they need.
For Italy, this game will be a sore reminder of what could have been. Facing an opposition they would see themselves as superior to will twist the knife even more.
A result here for the Green Falcons would be the perfect platform on which for them to build a summer tournament of hope.
Given Italy’s failure hangover may still linger, they just might. However, it seems unlikely.
Could the Saudis capitalise on a wounded Italian side? Let us know by commenting below.
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