When Giovanni Trapattoni last encountered an England side, he was facing a nation perhaps at its lowest ebb internationally. Tonight, he will face a team transformed at a time when Italian football is undergoing an intense bout of self-contemplation.
The England team that Peter Taylor took to Turin in November 2000 was managerless, directionless and poor enough for some in the FA to suggest that the World Cup should be written off.
These days, the failure of any Italian club to make the quarter-finals of the European Cup for a second successive year has sparked a bout of fierce self-examination from the Alps to Sicily despite the fact that the national side qualified for Japan and South Korea without losing a game. Tonight, he said, would be a good time to put on a show of force; to remind those writing off Italian clubs that the Azzurri can still dazzle.
"Italy are the last Italian team left in an important competition," he said, although since Internazionale and Milan both of which he managed, may yet meet in the Uefa Cup final this may be a little extreme. "We need to ask ourselves questions about our belief," he said yesterday after making the final preparations for tonight's friendly at Elland Road.
"But Juventus had a lot of injuries – they missed Alessandro del Piero for example – and without those they would probably have qualified. I don't want to talk of a crisis in Italian football because Germany and Spain have had their problems over the past 10 years, but I am optimistic about our chances of winning the World Cup."
Although they have a relatively easy group, paired with Ecuador, Mexico and Croatia, this is just as well. Coming within an ace of taking Italy to the European Championships two years ago was not enough to keep his predecessor, Dino Zoff, in employment. "I know only too well that a World Cup is a matter of life and death for Italian fans or media," Trapattoni said.
"It's true that if we don't get to the semi-finals we have failed, but this simply reflects the popularity of our football. It's not always the best to look at because the result matters more than anything else, more than the paying spectator likes to see. I would like to think we can end up in the first four. When it comes to the crunch our football has always come through."
Trapattoni talks of grinta, or what English managers would call "bottle", seeing his side through when it matters. He makes Brazil or Argentina favourites to win the World Cup, simply because they are attuned to the humidity in the Far East.
"England are a strong side and it has not surprised me that they have done well because they have so many very good young players," he said.
"I have spoken to Sven Goran Eriksson and for this game we both suffer from the same problem of having too many players out. But I don't think I will have to motivate my players to face the likes of David Beckham. Any team that can go to Germany and win 5-1 should provide us with a good game whatever the circumstances."Reuse content