Italy coach Luciano Spalletti ran into a diplomatic incident ahead of the match with Ukraine, explaining why he congratulated his old club Zenit St. Petersburg. ‘It seems totally unfair to connect a sporting victory to a conflict.’

It kicks off on neutral turf at the BayArena in Leverkusen on Monday at 19.45 GMT.

The Azzurri can qualify for EURO 2024 as long as they avoid defeat, thanks to a superior head-to-head record, having won 2-1 at San Siro in September.

This game is being played in Germany because naturally Ukraine cannot guarantee safety on their home soil, having been invaded by Russia in February 2022.

Spalletti spent several years in Russia when he was the coach of Zenit St. Petersburg, a period that ran from December 2009 to March 2014.

He won the Russian title twice, along with the Russian Cup and Russian Supercup.

When he won the Scudetto for the first time in his career with Napoli in May, the coach received congratulations from Zenit and responded in turn by complimenting them on their most recent title.

As the invasion of Ukraine had already begun, asked a Ukrainian reporter in today’s press conference, was it right for Spalletti to congratulate Zenit?

“That squad still has many of the players I trained, their current coach had been part of my squad and the President is the same man who I worked with at the time,” replied Spalletti.

“I received a compliment on my victory in Serie A and I felt it was the absolute minimum to reply with congratulations for their own win.

“It seems totally unfair to connect a sporting victory to a conflict, one that I absolutely do not agree with. I do not agree with any conflict, I am against any war.

“We as Italians are close to all the people who suffer within these conflicts. Above all, our thoughts go to those families who have nothing to do with what is happening and only want to live their lives in peace.”

While Russia and their clubs have been excluded from football events following the invasion, their individual players are still in action with clubs all over Europe, including Aleksei Miranchuk with Torino.

Miranchuk was playing for Atalanta when Russia invaded and remains friends with his then-club teammate, Ukraine international Ruslan Malinovskyi.

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