Stephen Hunt and his Republic of Ireland team-mates will relish the tag of underdogs as they head into tonight’s clash with world champions Italy.
Ireland will run out at the San Nicola Stadium in Bari having slipped two points off the pace in the race for World Cup qualification from Group Eight as a result of Saturday evening’s 1-1 draw with Bulgaria at Croke Park.
Italy, who beat Montenegro in Podgorica at the weekend to take their points tally to 13 from a possible 15, will go into battle with Giovanni Trapattoni’s men as firm favourites both on the night and to win the group.
However, Hunt believes that might just bring the best out of Ireland as they look to repeat their famous 1994 World Cup finals victory over the mighty Italians.
The 27-year-old Reading winger said: “I think we do perform better when we are underdogs. Down the years, history has proven that.
“The last time we qualified for a World Cup, we qualified via a play-off, so we are no world champions.
“But we are a good team with good players playing in the top league in the world, so we are still confident we are going to win the group.”
Ireland’s hopes of topping the group were dealt a blow at the weekend when Kevin Kilbane’s late own goal handed Bulgaria a point.
Although they remain in second place seven points clear of the chasing pack, Ireland need to prosper on their travels – they face Italy, Bulgaria and Cyprus away in their next three qualifiers – if they are to cement that and stand a chance of overhauling Italy.
Hunt said: “We want to be top of the league, so it’s important we don’t lose in Italy and we get a result, for sure.
“Then you have to try to match their results all the way through the campaign until you play them at home.
“If you are within touching distance of Italy when you have them at home, you would fancy your chances.”
Hunt was drafted into the starting line-up against the Bulgarians in place of the injured Damien Duff, and is likely to retain his place tonight.
Saturday’s game proved a frustrating experience for the Republic, who took the lead through Richard Dunne’s first-minute header, but then failed to capitalise as they were pushed back by the visitors, and were ultimately made to pay the price.
Marcello Lippi’s side will be a very different proposition, and Hunt knows Ireland will have to be at their best if they are to return to Dublin with something to show for their efforts.
He said: “They don’t play like Brazil, they play like Italy.
“They are hard to beat and they have some individuals who can hurt you.
“We have to be on our guard. But it’s a great game to be involved in and we look forward to it.”