(Reuters) - Italy manager Roberto Mancini expects a physical Northern Ireland side to provide the toughest challenge of the three World Cup qualifying games his side are facing during a busy international break.
The Azzurri, who are on a 22-match unbeaten run under Mancini, welcome Ian Baraclough’s side to Parma on Thursday for their opening 2022 World Cup qualifier.
“The first match is the most difficult: it’s our first game in five months, and it’s against a difficult side to face,” Mancini told a news conference on Monday.
“They’re strong physically and have many players who play in the Premier League. We know that you can’t get it wrong on the road to the World Cup, we need to do the best we can in these three matches.”
Italy then travel to Bulgaria and Lithuania but uncertainty remains over whether the Inter Milan players Mancini has called up will be available.
Nicolo Barella, Stefano Sensi and Alessandro Bastoni were named in Mancini’s squad for the international window, but a clutch of positive COVID-19 tests in the Inter squad led to the postponement of their Serie A match against Sassuolo on Saturday and the local health authority banned players from joining up with their national teams.
However, Mancini remains hopeful, saying: “We’re waiting to see what will happen; it seems that they will be free given that the other national team players have left for other destinations.
“We’ll see if it’s possible to get them in between today and Wednesday. I’m sorry not to have them but we are confident."
Mancini has brought former Italy and Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi, a 2006 World Cup winner, on to the coaching staff before the postponed European Championship in June and July.
“We’re happy that he’s with us, he was an important player in Italian football and we needed someone who could help us,” Mancini said.
“Given that he wants to be a coach in the future, it’ll also be a useful experience for him.”
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; editing by Clare Fallon)