"Remember Paolo Rossi and Toto Schillaci," they said. "Now look for Enrico Chiesa - if Arrigo Sacchi has the brains to pick him." Sacchi did not. He did drop Fabrizio Ravanelli for Italy's opening game at Anfield yesterday - but brought in Pier Luigi Casiraghi instead.
The 27-year-old Casiraghi is variously described as "powerful" and "robust," not adjectives customarily associated with Italian forwards. He has been on the international scene for seven years without ever causing much excitement.
Until yesterday. It took him just four minutes to have the Kop, a rare sea of blue, on its feet with a well-taken goal. He went on to delight them with a classically executed second.
His goals sent Russia to a possibly critical defeat and gave him the chance of emulating Rossi and Schillaci - who was a Juventus team-mate when he took Italy to the brink of success in Italia '90.
Casiraghi's chances of leading the Italian attack in the competition's later stages were enhanced even when he left the field. Ravanelli, given 10 minutes to show what he could do, missed two good chances to seal the Azzurri's win. Had Igor Dobrovolski not shot wildly over when put through in the last minute, Ravanelli's domestic popularity could have vanished overnight.
The Italians just deserved their victory. Russia had more possession, they often created the prettier passing moves in an attractive, free-flowing game. But they rarely penetrated in attack and badly missed Yuri Nikiforov in defence.
That weakness showed as early as the third minute, as Casiraghi was left unmarked to receive Alessandro Del Piero's pass. However, the Lazio striker was slow to react and his shot was blocked. Chiesa's supporters nodded knowingly, and prepared to castigate Sacchi once more.
Two minutes later they were acclaiming Casiraghi's inclusion as he scored the fastest goal of the tournament to date. It came, as early goals often do, from a mistake. The culprit was Stanislav Cherchesov, the Russian goalkeeper, who mis-hit a clearance straight to Angelo di Livio. He instantly transferred it to Casiraghi who, with the goalkeeper still scrambling back into position, drove the ball past him from 25 yards.
The goal rewarded an Italian side which had been so hungry to start that Les Mottram, the Scottish referee, had to hold them back at the kick-off. Yet they now relaxed and, slowly, the Russians began to take control.
The much-anticipated contest between Paolo Maldini and Andrei Kanchelskis began to feature, with the Russians constantly seeking to release their winger. Maldini proved equal to the challenge but, on the other flank, Italy were suddenly opened up.
It came from a rare foray by Viktor Onopko. His penchant for stepping out of defence was restricted by Nikiforov's absence but this time he had a shot blocked. It fell to Valeri Karpin, whose shot rebounded to Ilya Tsymbalar. Time seemed to stop as he stepped forward, drew Angelo Peruzzi, and scored.
Gianfranco Zola put a header just wide, Kanchelskis finally beat Maldini, and Casiraghi went close as the balance of play swung stylishly from one side to the other. Then, after 51 minutes, it tipped irrevocably towards the Italians. Roberto Mussi won the ball from Tsymbalar, Di Livio played it into Zola, whose first-time pass was rifled in by Casiraghi.
As Russia pushed forward, the Italians had enough chances to win comfortably. Cherchesov made a good save from Zola but Ravanelli, twice freed by Zola, should have done better. He was saved by Dobrovolski's waywardness, and a timely punch from Peruzzi as Kanchelskis sought an unlikely headed equaliser.
The onus will be on the former Manchester United winger on Sunday. If Russia are to remain in contention, he will need to reprise his Old Trafford best against Germany.
Croatia's winning start, page 5
ITALY (4-3-3): Peruzzi (Juventus); Mussi (Parma), Costacurta (Milan), Apolloni (Parma), Maldini (Milan); Di Livio (Juventus), Albertini (Milan) Di Matteo (Lazio); Casiraghi (Lazio), Zola (Parma), Del Piero (Juventus). Substitutes: Donadoni (New York/New Jersey MetroStars) for Del Piero, h-t; Fuser (Lazio) for Di Livio, 62; Ravanelli (Juventus) for Casiraghi, 80.
RUSSIA (4-2-3-1): Cherchesov (Tirol Innsbruck); Tetradze (Alania Vladikavkaz), Onopko (Real Oviedo), Bushmanov (CSKA Moscow), Kovtun (Dynamo Moscow); Radimov (CSKA Moscow), Mostovoi (Strasbourg); Kanchelskis (Everton), Karpin (Real Sociedad), Tsymbalar (Spartak Moscow); Kolyvanov (Foggia). Substitutes: Yanovski (Alania Vladikavkaz) for Bushmanov, h-t; Kiriakov (Karlsruhe) for Karpin, 63; Dobrovolski (no club) for Tsymbalar, 70.
Referee: L Mottram (Scotland).
Bookings: Italy: Albertini, Donadoni. Russia: Onopko, Kolyvanov, Kovtun.
Man of the match: Casiraghi.Reuse content