In what would have attracted a full house in Croatia’s Adriatic resort of Split, the top-of-the-table Group H fixture comes as an anti-climax much to the dismay of the home team’s coach Niko Kovac.
“It is tragic for our soccer and the people that no fans will be allowed into the ground,” Kovac told the Croatian Football Association website.
“Hence it won’t be an enjoyable event but there will be no excuses if we don’t get a result.
“Under the circumstances, I’d be happy with a draw, especially in view of the fact that we will miss injured (midfielder) Luka Modric and (defender) Vedran Corluka through suspension.”
The Croatians were handed a one-match crowd ban after racist chants by their fans during a 5-1 home win over Norway in March, which came on the back of incidents they caused during a 1-1 draw against Italy in Milan last November.
The match in the San Siro stadium was twice halted after visiting Croatia fans hurled flares on to the pitch.
Kovac could be tempted to field an adventurous 4-4-2 formation by partnering Leicester City striker Andrej Kramaric to Mario Mandzukic up front, while Modric’s absence could unleash Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic into a free role in midfield.
Italy coach Antonio Conte faces a selection headache as goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and midfielder Marco Verratti are doubtful.
Buffon is struggling with a left elbow injury he sustained against Barcelona in the Champions League final while Verratti picked up a knock on his left calf in training.
“Croatia are a very good team and they proved it at the San Siro but we have to qualify,” Conte told the Italian football federation.
“We’re working on a different formation (to our preferred 3-5-2), we need to play a system that fits the personnel.”
Fatigue after a long club season could also be a factor at both ends but Croatia’s Dynamo Kiev defender Domagoj Vida is confident the home side can take a big step towards next year’s finals in France.
“Exhaustion goes out the window for a big game like this, it’s the group’s derby and we are confident as we’ve had a very good campaign so far,” said Vida.
Croatia top the group with 13 points from five games, followed by Italy on 11.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by Justin Palmer)