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By ESPN Staff

Chiellini tips Serbia to be closest Azzurri rivals

Italy may face a difficult away clash with Northern Ireland on Friday, but Giorgio Chiellini believes it will likely be next Tuesday's opponents Serbia who will be the Azzurri's closest challengers for top spot in Euro 2012 qualifying.

Italy head into the encounter with Northern Ireland with six points on the board, after new coach Cesare Prandelli guided his side to victories over Estonia and the Faroe Islands, but Chiellini says the Azzurri know that the Serbia game is probably the one that matters most.

"I believe we will fight for the first spot with Serbia,'' Chiellini said. "But I think the two games are equally difficult and very important for qualification to Euro 2012. We will have to be focused from start to finish.''

Northern Ireland started their qualifying campaign with a 1-0 win over Slovenia in Maribor at the start of September and they trail Group C leaders Italy by three points, but have a game in hand.

Nigel Worthington's side have caused a few surprises at Windsor Park in the past five years, beating the likes of Spain and England, and Chiellini is aware of their impressive home record.

"They are more dangerous when playing at home,'' Chiellini added. "Northern Ireland seem to have another gear in front of their fans. They narrowly missed out on Euro 2008 and this year's World Cup. We will have to be ready for a sporting battle.

"Serbia have more quality than Northern Ireland. It's going to be a very difficult game. We will have to go to the encounter in the best possible way.''

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