It is hard to imagine any side has ever gone into a World Cup quarter-final against such a background of turmoil as Italy do on Friday. It is just about conceivable that the investigations into alleged match-fixing among Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, which began their judicial phase in Rome on Thursday, could have been pushed into the background, perhaps even used to forge a siege mentality, but the apparent attempted suicide of the former international Gianluca Pessotto has clearly had a traumatic effect.
Fabio Cannavaro, who played alongside Pessotto at Juventus, rushed from a press conference in obvious distress on learning the news on Tuesday, while both Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluca Zambrotta visited the 35-year-old in hospital in Turin, where his condition deteriorated yesterday. It is understood that Pessotto – who had recently been appointed sporting director of Juventus, but is not implicated in the match-fixing inquiry – had been struggling to adapt to life after his playing career.
Beside the off-field issues, it seems almost distastefully banal to note that Alessandro Nesta has failed to recover from a groin injury, but with his obvious replacement, Marco Materazzi, suspended after being sent off against Australia, it represents a significant blow to Italy’s chances. The inexperienced Andrea Barzagli of Palermo will partner Cannavaro in the centre of defence.
Given Ukraine’s unadventurous style in their second-round win over Switzerland, defensive disruption may not seem too big a problem, but, as Nesta warned, Andriy Shevchenko always poses a threat, particularly as he recovers match-sharpness following a knee injury.
Ukraine find themselves in a position of which they could hardly have dreamed after a 4-0 defeat to Spain in their opening game, but that is unlikely to liberate them from their cautious style. They have not conceded a goal in three games since, and, while the return of the centre-backs Vyachelsav Sviderskyi and Andriy Rusol from suspension and the right-back Vladimir Yeserskyi from injury should allow their midfield to focus less on defence, their policy will remain one of containment.
Oleh Blokhin’s only selection dilemma concerns who should partner Shevchenko in the absence of Andriy Voronin, who has a thigh injury. His most likely course of action is to recall Serhiy Rebrov to the midfield with Andriy Vorobey pushing forwards, but, given Voronin’s main asset in this tournament has been his muscularity, Blokhin may prefer the rangy Artem Milevskyi as a more like-for-like replacement. The 21-year-old Dynamo Kyiv forward won acclaim on Monday for the confidence he showed to dink home his penalty in the shoot-out. It was a rare moment of flair in an attritional contest. More of the same is likely tonight.