Ireland could cash in on a much-changed Italian starting line-up on Wednesday.
Antonio Conte is set to ring the changes for this final Group E clash in Lille, presenting the Republic of Ireland with a wonderful opportunity to reach the knockout stages, despite having underwhelmed so far. Given what we all thought about the dearth of quality in the Italy squad before a ball had been kicked, progression could be on a plate for Martin O’Neill’s men.
Gianluigi Buffon is one confirmed absentee, having been laid low with a cold. But it would be a major surprise if Conte fielded any of the seven players who have completed the full 180 minutes up to this point with a last-16 match in Saint-Denis to prepare for next Tuesday - and that probably means resting all three members of that rock-solid Juventus backline.
My ratings make the Azzurri about even money at full strength, but what’s the correct price for their second string? Bearing in mind Italian football culture, whereby trying too hard against needier opponents can often be considered offensive, you could make a case to say the Irish should be favourites. Imagine the market for an equivalent final-day encounter in Serie A.
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Of course, the counter-argument is that this represents an important opportunity for some of Italy’s fringe players to force their way into contention for the knockout stages, particularly those who offer something different and operate further up the pitch. But, for the likes of Simone Zaza and Ciro Immobile, such impressions need not necessarily go hand in hand with victory.
To the Azzurri, this is essentially a friendly and their record in friendlies is notoriously bad: just five wins in 25 matches. Italy is a masculine country, yet unlike Germany where masculinity manifests as a merciless approach to those lower down the food chain, the Italian mentality is perhaps more intuitive with an aversion to burning bridges of any kind.
As for Ireland, they have to change tack. They looked quite handy for an hour against an admittedly-limited Sweden side but then retreated after going a goal up, inviting unnecessary pressure. From that moment on, they’ve been far too passive and fearful of what’s at stake but now the dynamic has changed in such a way that fear isn’t an option. They simply have to go for it.
If they up the aggression and get back on the front foot, Ireland should be a decent bet at 12/5. Having run fewer kilometres than any other team at the tournament (just 205 in total), the Irish should certainly have plenty left in the tank. And with Conte potentially more concerned with how his creative players express themselves, the 2-1 correct score option at 13/1 also has legs.
Click here for more information about Mike Holden’s shot-based ratings system