(Reuters) - Italy manager Roberto Mancini expects a "typically British" Northern Ireland team to cause his side problems when they kick off their World Cup qualifying campaign on Thursday, four months after their last game.
The Azzurri begin their bid to reach Qatar 2022 on a 22-match unbeaten run, but they haven’t played a match since a 2-0 win over Bosnia in November 2020.
“It will be our first and most difficult game, coming after so many months,” Mancini told a news conference ahead of the match at Parma’s Ennio Tardini stadium.
“We will have to be very careful and focused as it’s always better to start off on the right foot.
“Northern Ireland are a typically British team, strong on the counter-attack. We must not take risks as there will be limited spaces.
“Physically they are Anglo-Saxons, but their game is a little different. They are a team that always defends very well and doesn’t give away much space and they’re good at counter attacking.”
Juventus and Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini was also wary of the threat posed by Ian Baraclough’s men, despite their failure to win a competitive game in regulation time since a 1-0 Euro 2020 qualifying victory over Belarus in June 2019.
“It won’t be an easy game for many reasons. We’re facing a team diametrically opposed to us in terms of our characteristics. If they manage to block us off, they will be dangerous,” Chiellini said.
Mancini’s ability to keep his players fresh will be put to the test, as his team is in the unusual position of playing three games in a week.
After facing Northern Ireland, the four-time World Cup winners travel to Bulgaria and Lithuania for their final games before this summer’s European Championships.
“It’s a bit of a problem, playing three intense qualifying games for Qatar 2022,” Mancini said.
“But it’s also true that this team has a certain mentality, they’ve always been very focused over the last two years and they know from experience that it will be important to start the group well.”
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Toby Davis)