(Reuters) - Luna Rossa are firm underdogs heading into next month's America's Cup match against holders Team New Zealand (TNZ) but it would be a mistake to write off the Italian team's chances after their dominant display in the Challenger Series final, INEOS Team UK skipper Ben Ainslie has said.
Luna Rossa crushed Ainslie's INEOS 7-1 in the best-of-13 series in Auckland and will have a second tilt at the world's oldest sporting trophy when they take on TNZ from March 6.
The two teams previously went head to head in the 2000 America's Cup match in Auckland and in the 2007 Challenger Series final in Valencia. TNZ swept both ties 5-0 but Ainslie expects a much tighter battle this time around.
""We know how good the Kiwis are. It's a bit like taking on the All Blacks at Eden Park, round here on the Hauraki Gulf," Ainslie said. "But Luna Rossa have definitely got a chance.
"They are strong in all conditions but particularly in lighter airs. Racing in these finals has been pretty intense at times and no doubt that will help them in the match.
"TNZ are the defenders for a reason. They have been incredibly strong in America's Cup history. It is going to be a real battle for Luna Rossa but they have proven they can come through."
TNZ were dominant in December's World Series events, dropping just one race, and skipper Peter Burling is confident there is a lot more to come from his boat.
"It's exciting to know who we finally get to race," Burling said. "For Luna Rossa to come out on top, we've really got ourselves a worthy challenger.
"We're the defenders but we can't be in a defensive mindset. Everyone's been taking risks, pushing the development. We're excited with the package we've come up with. As athletes we want to test our skills against the best and also compete on home waters."
(Reporting by Arvind Sriram in Bengaluru; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore & Shri Navaratnam)