Italy in party mood for Lithuania qualifier

August 31, 2006

ROME, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Italy's opening Euro 2008 qualifier against Lithuania in Naples on Saturday promises to be as much a welcome back party for the World Cup winners as a competitive football match.

The Italy team that lost 2-0 to Croatia in Livorno earlier this month was a second-string side, barely recognizable from the one that beat France in the final in Germany on July 9.

This weekend's Group B game at the San Paolo stadium will be different, marking the return of the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluigi Buffon and Gennaro Gattuso.

That not all the world champions are back in the squad is due to the late start of the Italian domestic season, which has been delayed until Sept. 9 by legal battles surrounding the Serie A match-fixing scandal.

Italy coach Roberto Donadoni has left out some of his best and most experienced players - including strikers Luca Toni, Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti and Vincenzo Iaquinta - who he believes have not yet reached full match fitness.

Alessandro Nesta is out through injury, while fellow defender Marco Materazzi is serving a two-match ban for goading Zinedine Zidane into head-butting him in the World Cup final.

Despite the absences, few fans expect Lithuania to offer much resistance. The last time the two sides met on Italian soil, in a 2002 World Cup qualifier, Italy were 4-0 winners.

Donadoni, however, wants his team to avoid thinking of the match as merely a warm-up for their second qualifier against France in a World Cup final re-match in Paris on Wednesday.

"We have to be careful against Lithuania. We have to think that they are the world champions, not us, otherwise we will have problems," Donadoni said.

His caution was echoed by Buffon, who insisted that Italy's World Cup win would not make them complacent.

"Being world champions brings with it a big responsibility and everyone will look at us differently. But the experience will help us to stay focused," he said.