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Expert view: 'You can get at this Italy side, they don't keep the ball that well'

Bologna-based football journalist Mark Doyle believes Ireland have a big opportunity to cause an upset today, if they get their attitude and personnel right.

Belgium v Italy - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group E - Stade de Lyon Italy's Leonardo Bonucci and Belgium's Romelu Lukaku battle for possession. Source: Michael Sohn

WE CAUGHT UP with Mark Doyle, a football writer from Dublin who has spent three years with Goal.com in Bologna, to get some inside information on the Italians ahead of tonight’s game in Lille.

Mark Doyle spoke to us from France ahead of tonight's game. Source: Twitter - Mark Doyle

Hi Mark, thanks for taking the time to have a chat today. First off, as someone who knows both of these teams very well, how do you see tonight’s game panning out?

The thing that really disappointed me with Ireland last weekend was I thought they were a little bit reluctant to get stuck in against Belgium.

I was a bit disappointed with their attitude in that they didn’t seem fired up. They didn’t take the game to them. I thought they were very deep and invited Belgium on to them.

And I was at [Martin] O’Neill’s press conference afterwards and he said he thought they were a bit nervous. That really stood out for me, I thought, why were they nervous? All the pressure was on the Belgians.

So I’m really worried from a mental perspective, now the pressure is on Ireland and they have to take the game to the Italians.

The Italians are comfortable defending, the pressure is off them and they can play freely. I hope that Ireland go and take the initiative and I think you can do that against this Italian side because they don’t have Marco Verrati, they don’t have Claudio Marchisio, and they don’t have Andrea Pirlo.

The Sweden coach Erik Hamren, in his press conference before they played Italy, said he didn’t expect to have much possession against them.

But then, when we saw the game, Italy were content to stay back. Sweden had all the ball but as we know they were absolutely toothless and for the second game in a row they didn’t even have a shot on target.

So you can take the game to this Italian side and that’s what I hope Ireland do. I hope they pick an attacking line-up. I hope they pick players who can actually play. I hope the players have a positive attitude and give it a go.

Yes, the Italian side did a number on Belgium but we won’t face the same team that they played against the Belgians, they are going to make a lot of changes, so I think there’s an opportunity there to go at these guys.

This is not a quality Italian side, they don’t play like Spain, they don’t keep possession brilliantly, they don’t have the talented ball players that they had in the past in midfield because of the injuries to the likes of Marchisio and Verratti and because of the fact that Pirlo was overlooked because he can probably no longer cut it at this level.

These guys can be gotten at.

Italy Malta Euro Soccer Andrea Pirlo didn't make the cut. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Italy have already qualified as group winners, is there a danger of them looking ahead towards the knockout stages? How are they approaching the Irish game? There is obviously talk that they will make a lot of changes.

[Matteo] Darmian said that [coach Antonio] Conte has been talking about the Ireland game since before the tournament; they thought that this game would be decisive for them but obviously they’ve wrapped things up with a game to spare.

He’s going to make changes and there are two ways of looking at it. Gazzetta (La Gazzetta dello Sport, the newspaper) have released what they think the team will be and they are looking at nine changes, which is obviously going to disrupt momentum and the fluidity of the side.

It could work both ways — it could be an advantage for Ireland because this particular group haven’t played together before. He’s going to mess with the defence.

Our guys at Goal Italia actually think that [Leonardo] Bonucci is going to play, Gazzetta don’t think he’s going to play. And to me that’s huge because he’s the playmaker, they don’t have Pirlo anymore.

He’s the guy, as we saw against Belgium, who distributes the ball from the back. He sets up a lot of their attacks and if he doesn’t play I think that’s an advantage for us.

Belgium v Italy - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group E - Stade de Lyon Leonardo Bonucci has impressed in France. Source: Michael Sohn

Gazzetta think that it’s going to be a back three of [Andrea] Barzagli, [Angelo] Ogbonna and Darmian, with [Stephan] El Shaarawy on the left and [Mattia] De Sciglio on the right.

Our guys at Goal Italia think that [Federico] Bernardeschi will get the nod on the right and De Sciglio will be on the left. De Sciglio is obviously versatile enough to play on either side.

[Gianluigi] Buffon is definitely not going to play because he got a booking against Sweden, so [Salvatore] Sirigu is going to play. If Barzagli is the only survivor from the Juventus back four I think that’s really good for Ireland, if Bonucci plays the advantage will be less.

Nine changes is a hell of a lot but there is a counter-argument as [former Ireland assistant coach Marco] Tardelli has been saying, that the guys coming in are going to be hungry and determined to impress and get a place in the side.

Particularly up front, they will probably go with [Simone] Zaza and [Ciro] Immobile. And up front they’re not set in stone. They like [Graziano] Pelle and they like Éder, who obviously got the goal against Sweden.

But there is an opportunity and I’m sure Conte has said that this is a chance to impress. We could still be facing a very motivated side even though I think they will lose some sort of edge.

They’ve won the group and I think that’s worked out well for Ireland. There are no permutations for Italy. There are two schools of thought but to me it’s a good thing. Nine changes is a hell of a lot so I’d be somewhat optimistic.

To me the key is Bonucci though, if he doesn’t play that gives them even less creativity and I’d be delighted if he didn’t start.

What is the mood like in Italy at the moment? Presumably the perception of this team has changed drastically since they got the result against Belgium?

Yeah, expectancy levels were low. There was an awareness there. It’s a pretty clued-in culture when it comes to football. Everyone has their opinion on football, they’re very tactically aware.

It was accepted that this was one of the weakest squads that they’ve had in years. There was no star quality. The fact that Thiago Motta was their number 10 perfectly represented the lack of technical ability, particularly from an attacking perspective, in the squad.

Italy v Sweden - UEFA Euro 2016 - Group E - Stadium de Toulouse Thiago Motta. Source: EMPICS Sport

It was funny, the squad was done live on [TV station] Rai Uno and it was like reality TV, going into the Big Brother house. They had this big production and for the first time in history that was how they announced their squad for a major tournament.

To me, that was just a very obvious and desperate attempt to drum up excitement because most people were aware that this wasn’t going to be a very exciting squad and that Conte wasn’t going to pick a whole load of youngsters or anything like that. He was going to pick guys that he could rely on.

So yeah, there were low expectations but the Belgium game obviously changed everything and now they kind of believe that with this defence they will always have a chance of beating someone.

They’re cautiously optimistic at this stage.

And the way the tournament has gone so far they probably have no fear of anyone now, particularly with that defensive record?

Exactly, and they’ve said that. Even Tardelli said in Gazzetta the only side that has really looked impressive has been the Spanish. And of all the major players, he said Italy have nothing to fear. And that’s pretty much the common consensus, that this defence can hold their own against anyone.

They’re a little bit worried about their midfield still, they’ve obviously got ageing players like De Rossi in the middle of the park. And Motta’s best days are clearly behind him. So they’re worried that they’ll run into a team that can really play ball.

But they’re not afraid of anyone. They’re kind of like, ‘we are Italy and we’re hard to beat’.

What is the knowledge in Italy like of this Irish team? Do they know our players and are they familiar with the limitations we have and the type of football that we play?

They do, in general they’re pretty clued-in people when it comes to football.

Robbie Keane is obviously well known, Roy Keane is still well known. And because of the [Giovanni] Trapattoni connection they like the fact that he went over there and qualified Ireland for a major tournament.

Italian Soccer - Birra Moretti Trophy - Bari v Inter Milan Robbie Keane, in 2000, during his Inter Milan days. Source: EMPICS Sport

They’re amused by that and they like that we have a soft spot for them. There are a lot of cultural connections between the two nations actually. Anywhere you go in Italy pretty much and you say you’re Irish, you’re going to get a pretty positive reaction which is really nice.

I don’t know whether it’s the fact they are two Catholic nations with the same kind of mentality. And also there is a love of Irish music which I never knew about until I moved to Italy. The amount of people that have such a fondness for traditional Irish music is incredible.

I get asked about it all the time and they instantaneously assume that you can play some sort of instrument. They consider us to be very musical people.

As soon as you mention that you’re Irish they almost instantaneously smile and they want to talk to you, they want to talk to you about Ireland and they immediately tell you that they’ve either been there — it’s incredible the amount of Italians who have been to Ireland — or that they are planning to go there.

I’m working closely with our Italian correspondent, Romeo Agresti, at the Euros and he is hoping for the ideal outcome. He says all Italians would like to see the Irish go through.

They’re happy that they’re already through and qualified and probably wouldn’t really mind too much if they lost this game and the Irish go through as well. And it’s a really nice attitude towards us.

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Alan Waldron

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