Italy v Scotland: Azzurri will test depth of Gordon Strachan's squad

By Liam McLeodBBC Scotland
Italy topped their group in Euro 2016 qualifying
Italy boast a squad packed full of experience
Italy v Scotland
Venue: Ta' Qali National Stadium, Mdina Date: Sunday, 29 May Kick-off: 1945 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Scotland & online, live text on BBC Sport website

Two years ago, Gordon Strachan turned down the opportunity to take his Scotland team to South America for acid testers against World Cup-bound Chile and Uruguay.

The matches were just too tough given the travelling time at the end of an energy-sapping season.

The Scots instead played Nigeria in London, while Michael O'Neill took the Northern Ireland squad out to face Alexis Sanchez, Luis Suarez and company.

O'Neill's side lost both matches but it doesn't appear to have done them any harm as they prepare to take their place at the European Championship party, with the Scots once again pressing their faces up against the door.

Indeed, many within O'Neill's camp point to that double-header in 2014 as being key to their recent success story.

The wondering of what might have been for the Scots was perfectly illustrated by Steven Naismith - a man who has just suffered the ignominy of relegation from the Premier League with Norwich City.

"It's not great to be the warm-up act," he said, as he and his Scots' team-mates prepare to take on the role of sparring partner for Italy and this summer's party hosts, France.

Unbeaten on way to France 2016

It is a marked change in tack by Strachan as he gets ready to lock horns with two European footballing superpowers.

Up first are the four-time world champions Italy in Malta, the soon-to-be scene of Scotland's opening World Cup qualifier.

Italy manager Antonio Conte
Conte won three Serie A titles in a row with Juventus before taking the Italy job in 2014

The Italians face Republic of Ireland, who beat Scotland to qualification, in Group E of the forthcoming Euro finals and view Strachan's side as similar opponents.

Their fine-tuning will ensure a difficult night for Strachan's patchwork squad with a Euro 2016 opener against Belgium less than three weeks away.

While the Azzurri are not at the peak of their powers these days - they have won only one World Cup finals match since their fourth coronation in Berlin in 2006 - head coach Antonio Conte guided them through an unbeaten, if uninspiring, qualification campaign.

Finishing ahead of Croatia at the top of their group, they qualified with a game to spare.

No room for Pirlo, but Buffon remains

The gulf between the Italians and the Scots is demonstrated by Conte's refusal to select the legendary Andrea Pirlo and striker Sebastian Giovinco because they ply their trade in Major League Soccer.

The standard is not high enough for Conte's taste. He has described it as "paying the consequence", albeit the classy Pirlo has just celebrated his 37th birthday and has not hit the heights he once did as he plays out the twilight of his career in New York.

The current squad are aiming to win the European Championship for Italy for just a second time and go one better than 2012, when they were blown away by a Spanish siege in the Kiev final.

At 38, you would forgive Gianluigi Buffon if he was relaxing with a large glass of Chianti in hand these days.

Far from it. The Juventus goalkeeper set a new Serie A clean-sheet record of 974 minutes this season as he lifted his seventh Scudetto.

The 156-times-capped Buffon is not the only 2006 alumni to continue to report, with Juve team-mate Andrea Barzagli adding his experience to the squad.

Those two, along with another Bianconeri legend, Georgio Chiellini, are likely to go to the finals as Conte prepares to whittle his squad down to 23.

Italy celebrate a 2-1 win at Hampden in 2007
Scotland have beaten Italy just once in 10 previous meetings

It is a group that will be minus midfield maestros Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti because of injury.

Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli will also have a watching brief, for very different reasons, having scored a paltry once while on loan at AC Milan this term during what has been a troubled time since his virtuoso performance took the Italians past Germany in their Warsaw semi-final four years ago.

Fringe players out to impress

Instead, Conte, who will take over at Chelsea after the finals, has been leaning on Graziano Pelle and, with the Southampton marksman having scored 14 goals in the Premier League this season, is likely to again.

A criticism of Conte has been a reluctance to give youth prominence, with the likes of Juve defender Daniele Rugani, Davide Zappacosta of city rivals Torino, club-mate Marco Benassi, Brazilian-born Jorginho, Lorenzo Insigne of Napoli and Fiorentina's Federico Bernardeschi all aiming to impress against the Scots and make the final cut for the finals.

Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele De Rossi remain important cogs in midfield, with Roma's Alessandro Florenzi certain to add to his 15 caps in the coming weeks along with Manchester United's Matteo Darmian.

The last time the nations clashed left the most bitter of tastes for Scotland as Spanish referee Manuel Gonzalez earned hate-figure status by awarding an Italian free-kick that began a chain of events that cost Scotland a place at Euro 2008 as a Christian Panucci header took the then world champions to Austria and Switzerland.

The stakes were at their highest on that wet November night in 2007 and, while the same cannot be said of this particular joust, like O'Neill, it might just be something Strachan appreciates in the fullness of time.

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