MILAN (AP) – Italy heads into Tuesday's match against Northern Ireland in Pescara looking to sign off its European qualification campaign on a high.
Cesare Prandelli's team has been impressive throughout the qualifiers, easily winning Group C. Another solid performance on Friday saw Italy hold Serbia to a 1-1 draw.
The side has the best record in European qualifiers out of any past Italy team but Prandelli urged caution.
''There's too many compliments, too much enthusiasm,'' Prandelli said. ''Criticism would be better now ... If I have a good point, it's that of having instilled enthusiasm into the players and given them the conviction that they can play football in this way.
''Everyone says that a national team can't have the same identity as a club side. But we want to surprise everyone and surprise ourselves with our game.''
Prandelli has rejuvenated the Italy squad since taking over after Italy's dismal 2010 World Cup where it failed to advance from the group stage.
AC Milan midfielder Antonio Nocerino credits the Azzurri's success to a newfound sense of squad unity.
''With Prandelli we enjoy ourselves,'' Nocerino said. ''We enjoy playing and we play a lot with the ball ... You have to give credit to the coach for creating an important group.''
Claudio Marchisio injured his ankle against Serbia, but the Juventus midfielder is expected to recover in time for the match.
Argentine-born forward Pablo Osvaldo could make his debut after being called up on Wednesday after injuries forced Mario Balotelli and Giampaolo Pazzini to withdraw from the squad.
Northern Ireland lost to Estonia 2-1 on Friday and can't qualify.
Coach Nigel Worthington's hopes of troubling Italy have been hit by injury problems.
Aaron Hughes, Jonny Evans, Josh McQuoid and Jamie Ward withdrew from the squad last week and they were joined by goalkeeper Lee Camp and midfielder Grant McCann after the Estonia game. First-choice striker Kyle Lafferty is also out suspended.
''Of course there is frustration and yes I am disappointed (by results), but I try to look at the whole picture,'' Worthington said.
''You see what you have to work with, the numbers you have, the people who aren't there for one reason or another, but that's international football. You make the most of it and it's as simple as that. No excuses.
''That is the game and I've been in it long enough to get on with it.''
This could be Worthington's last game in charge as his contract is up at the end of the year and there are no friendlies scheduled until February.