“Belfast or Death” screamed Italian magazine Guerin Sportivo in January 1958, just a few days before the Italians lost 2-1 in Northern Ireland and missed out on qualification for the World Cup. It was the only time Italy have ever failed to qualify for the tournament.

Now a new generation, headed by Cesare Prandelli, are returning to Belfast; and while the match is not as decisive as in 1958, it still could have implications for the Azzurri’s future and their quest to establish themselves at the top of their Euro 2012 qualification group.

Prandelli could not call upon the services of Mario Balotelli (the Manchester City star is out injured), also lost an important defensive asset in the shape of Luca Antonelli of Parma, and must make do without Alberto Gilardino too. Italy’s boss has recalled Gianluca Zambrotta to the squad in a surprise move – the 33-year-old felt his chance had gone following his involvement in the disastrous World Cup in South Africa, but Prandelli had other ideas. “There are no young players like Zambrotta at the moment”, said the former Fiorentina boss. “We need his experience and I hope that young players for that role will emerge before the end of the Serie A season.”

To replace Gilardino, Prandelli opted for Sergio Floccari, who has enjoyed an impressive season in Rome with Lazio so far.

The Italian boss wants to deploy an aggressive 4-3-3, with Salvatore Sirigu  between the sticks, Mattia Cassani, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Zambrotta at the back; Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi will provide a high quality three man midfield – this is considered a key difference from the days of Marcello Lippi, who preferred less talented but more combative players in the engine room; Up front Antonio Cassano will be expected to produce magic and will be helped by Marco Borriello and Giampaolo Pazzini.

Back home in the boot shaped country, a win for the Azzurri is deemed crucial; at the very least Prandelli’s side much avoid a defeat which would be dangerous for their qualification prospects. Yet Italy are not complacent  and well understand that Northern Ireland coach Nigel Worthington has coaxed performances out of his players far beyond what could be reasonably expected.

Despite missing out on qualification for the 2010 World Cup, Worthington’s boys gave a good account of themselves and appear to have picked up where they left off this time around, starting their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign with a 1-0 win in Slovenia.

After travelling to Belfast there is no let up for the Azzurri, with another huge game on Tuesday, in Genoa against Serbia. Historically, the Italians do not play well against Slavs and this Serbian side, with players like Dejan Stankovic and Milos Krasic (who faced each other in the recent Derby d’Italia between Inter and Juventus) will be very competitive and may even be Italy’s biggest threat in the group.

Come next Wednesday, Italy will be able to form a true picture of the state of the Azzurri, following the country’s World Cup debacle. Prandelli will hope to have a positive story to tell.