Without its coach and star forward, Italy can’t afford to lose against Poland in what could be a decisive Nations League clash on Sunday.
They meet at Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia knowing that victory for either side will likely send it to the Nations League finals.
Poland tops Group 1 in League A. It is a point above Italy and two above the Netherlands. Italy plays in Bosnia-Herzegovina on Wednesday, while Poland hosts the Netherlands.
Italy has been beset by problems heading into these qualifiers, mainly to do with the coronavirus.
Coach Roberto Mancini is still at home in Rome self-isolating after contracting COVID-19, as is Lazio forward Ciro Immobile, last season’s European Golden Shoe winner.
Mancini will again be replaced by assistant coach Alberigo Evani, who was in charge on Wednesday when Estonia was beaten 4-0 in a friendly.
“It’s not an easy period for any of us,” Italy defender Emerson said. “This season is a bit different from past ones.
“Our coach is unfortunately at home, but those of us who are here must do all that we can for those who can’t be.”
Italy will also be without one of its key defenders as it prepares to face one of Europe’s top goalscorers in Robert Lewandowski.
Defender Leonardo Bonucci was hoping to make his 100th appearance for Italy but will return to Juventus on Sunday after failing to recover from a muscular injury.
“I’ve lost count by now of the number of players we have out,” Evani said on Saturday. “But this is more than a squad, it’s almost a family that doesn’t feel sorry for itself and will try to still be superior to a strong team like Poland, which at the moment has someone who is probably the best forward in Europe.”
Italy midfielder Roberto Gagliardini left the Azzurri camp on Saturday after a possible return of the virus. Gagliardini had the virus last month but recovered. He played all of Wednesday’s match but an inconclusive test result has forced him to return to his club Inter Milan as a precaution.
Italy forwards Moise Kean and Pietro Pellegri withdrew from the squad on Friday because of injury, adding to the list of players who pulled out earlier in the week. Kean was replaced by Udinese forward Stefano Okaka.
Another Italy forward, Andrea Belotti, is also struggling with injury.
“The priority will be to understand who is fit to play without running risks,” Evani said. “The 11 players who are in the best condition will play, we can't risk having to make a substitution after a few minutes, nor putting them at risk.”
Italy drew in Poland 0-0 last month.
Victory for either Italy or Poland would give it a significant advantage heading into the final round of fixtures but qualification would by no means be a foregone conclusion.
Italy drew at home to Bosnia in the opening round, ending an 11-match winning streak, while Poland lost to the Netherlands.
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Daniella Matar, The Associated Press