Rome - Leaders Croatia and second-place Italy clash Friday in Split for supremacy in their qualifying group to Euro 2016.
Halfway through the campaign, the Croats have 13 points from five outings in Group H, with the Azzurri trailing two points adrift as both squads are poised to get into the final phase set for next June in France.
Third-place, which allows progress through two-leg play-offs, is currently filled by Norway, on nine points as they welcome Azerbaijan, also on Friday
Italy boss Antonio Conte had to replace Juventus veteran Andrea Barzagli in defence, calling up Francesco Acerbi of Sassuolo. The underdogs had also provided striker Simone Zaza, but saw him likewise return home with injury, giving way to AC Milan's Giacomo Bonaventura.
Croatia drew 1-1 in Milan last November when Ivan Perisic levelled Antonio Candreva's opener and have an impressive 15-2 goal record compared to the Azzurri's 8-4.
Following Sunday's 4-0 friendly defeat of Gibraltar, Croatia coach Niko Kovac expects to see Mario Mandzukic score his first in the Euro campaign, while Luka Modric has not yet recovered from injury.
Conte, meanwhile, said he was preparing for a great performance against tough opponents.
"We have to qualify," he said. "We are working on a different formation, we need to play a system that fits the personnel. 3-5-2 is a good formation, but we need valid alternatives for the future."
Conte also quenched rumours that he could go back to domestic league action. He closed his last stint at a club in July 2014, with three straight domestic titles won with Juventus.
"I have never thought about leaving the national team," Conte said. "This kind of speculation periodically spreads out. I am happy with my choice to coach Italy.
"I am aware that it is a tough task, but I am willing to work. We are trying to do it in the best possible way along with the co-operation of the players."
More speculations that Conte could quit were linked to his involvement in an investigation from Cremona investigators into alleged match fixing.
"This is a very anguishing incident for me," he said. "It has been a matter of discussion for four years now and every time they show my face on TV when they talk about that. One day, someone will have to owe me some explanations."
The manager was suspended for four months in 2012 after a sports trial based on evidence from the Cremona investigations, his charge being failure to report two alleged match-fixing attempts while he was at Siena in 2011.