Euro 2016 qualifer: Bonucci leads Italy charge against sanctioned Croatia
Split: Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci has called on his Juventus teammates to take the frustration of losing the Champions League final out on Croatia when they meet in a Euro 2016 qualifier on Friday.
Leonardo Bonucci. Pic/AFP
Juventus's dreams of being crowned kings of Europe for the first time since 1996 were kept in check by a rampant Barcelona who won 3-1 at the Olympiastadion in Berlin last Saturday. Now Bonucci, one of six Bianconeri players originally called up to Antonio Conte's squad last week, hopes playing Croatia and then Portugal, whom they meet in a friendly next Tuesday, will help them ease the pain.
"Conte told me to just focus on Croatia, and that's what I'm doing," said Bonucci. "The next two games will give us a chance to quickly digest things, it's exactly what we need right now." Italy head to the Croatian seaside town of Split looking to extend their impressive 45-game unbeaten record in European Championship and World Cup qualifiers.
But going on recent form, player absences and their historical record against Croatia, Conte's men face an uphill battle. Sassuolo striker Simone Zaza and Juventus defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli are out for the Euro 2012 runners-up through injury and Conte could also be deprived of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon (elbow) and midfielder Marco Verratti (calf).
Croatia have suffered only one defeat to Italy in eight games, in 1942, and have since beaten the Azzurri three times and drawn four. The sides drew 1-1 in Milan in November and Conte admitted Croatia "are a very strong side and showed that against us at the San Siro". Anything less than a draw on Friday could leave the Azzurri facing a long summer before the next qualifiers in September.
Croatia can move five points clear at the top of Group H with a win and Italy are also only two points above third-placed Norway, who host Azerbaijan in Oslo this weekend. - Behind closed doors - Croatia, however, face two potential obstacles. Due to violent clashes and rocket-throwing incidents at the San Siro in November, as well as incidents of a racist nature in their qualifier against Norway, UEFA have ordered Friday's fixture to be played behind closed doors.
Given their long history of fan violence and consequent sanctions, an appeal by the Croatian football federation (HNS) to UEFA fell on deaf ears. HNS president Davor Suker admitted two months ago the next sanctions could be worse. "We know what would be the next punishment -- revoking of points and being kicked out of competition," warned Suker, who spoke after a meeting of the HNS executive committee.
Although Croatia will be without Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric, Juventus midfielder Claudio Marchisio said: "Even without Modric they're a complete team that have improved a lot in recent years. "It will be a difficult game, but playing without their fans in a fiery atmosphere could help us."
Given the absences from his squad, Conte, who led Juventus to three consecutive league titles before quitting to take charge of Italy, is considering other options to his trademark 3-5-2 formation. "I have to find the best system to suit the players I have. The 3-5-2 is a good formation but we need to have alternatives for the future," he added.