LONDON - Italy's World Cup plans were thrown into turmoil as Riccardo Montolivo was stretchered off during a scoreless draw against the Republic of Ireland yesterday.
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 gone 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 to a final group of 23 and he will be sweating on the medical bulletins.
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.