Italy’s World Cup plans were thrown into turmoil as Riccardo Montolivo was stretchered off during a 0-0 draw against the Republic of Ireland on Saturday.
Montolivo made seven appearances for the Azzurri during their World Cup qualifying campaign and was set to be a key member of Cesare Prandelli’s side in Brazil.
But the AC Milan midfielder suffered a serious-looking left ankle injury early in the first half of the friendly at Fulham’s Craven Cottage and, with early reports suggesting it could be broken, it must be extremely unlikely he will recover in time for the World Cup.
To make matters worse for Prandelli, he also saw Fiorentina midfielder Alberto Aquilani, who had come on for Montolivo, forced off with an injury before half-time.
Prandelli, whose side kick off their World Cup campaign against England on June 14, has yet to prune his provisional 30-man squad down to a final group of 23 and he will be sweating on the medical bulletins on Montolivo and Aquilani before making the final cut.
The only positive for Prandelli, who fielded an experimental line-up, was the sight of Fiorentina striker Giuseppe Rossi playing 70 minutes to prove his fitness after a serious knee injury sidelined him for much of the second half of the season.
Much of the pre-match focus had centred on Roy Keane, the assistant to Ireland boss Martin O’Neill, and his talks with Celtic over succeeding Neil Lennon as manager of the Scottish champions.
Keane was in the dug-out alongside O’Neill, but he was quickly overshadowed by Italy’s injury woes.
Rossi was handed an opportunity to prove his fitness and the American-born 27-year-old partnered Torino’s Ciro Immobile, who was making his debut in attack after finishing as the top scorer in Serie A this season.
Claudio Marchisio was first to threaten for Italy with a long range effort which drew a fine save from David Forde.
Ireland hit back when John O’Shea collected Aiden McGeady’s cross and tested Salvatore Sirigu, deputising for rested first choice goalkeeper Gigi Buffon.
The major blow for Italy came in the 14th minute when Montolivo was carried off after being caught on by a strong challenge from Ireland defender Alex Bruce.
The Italians looked rattled by Montolivo’s cruel exit and Irish midfielder Anthony Pilkington brought Sirigu into action again with a low 20-yard shot.
Prandelli’s side took a long period to recover their composure before Torino left-back Matteo Darmian, making his debut, fired narrowly wide from Rossi’s pass.
Another fine Ireland move ended with David Meyler’s shot well saved by Sirigu.
Ireland were well on top as half-time approached and Shane Long’s header was kept out by an excellent Sirigu stop.
Incredibly there was another injury setback for Italy before the break when Aquilani, who earned a reputation for fitness problems during his spell at Liverpool, limped disconsolately off.
Long almost put Ireland ahead early in the second half, but his strike was repelled by Sirigu.
Prandelli’s men thought they had taken the lead in the 55th minute, but Immobile’s tap-in was ruled out for offside.
That was Immobile’s last contribution as his debut came to an end moments later when he was replaced by veteran Parma forward Antonio Cassano.
O’Neill’s side could have added insult to injury for the Italians in the closing stages when Stephen Quinn hit the underside of the crossbar and McGeady’s follow-up shot was well saved by the impressive Sirigu.