Demonstrators fire flares over the Expo 2015 ticket office in Milan
Milan - AFP
Milan's Expo 2015 opens on Friday with hopes the six-month food-themed world fair will be a catalyst for economic revival competing with fears it will simply underline Italy's deep-seated problems.
The first global exhibition since Shanghai's groundbreaking hosting five years ago has been beset by delays which mean the site will be far from being fully completed when it opens to the public at 0800 GMT.
Corruption scandals, fears of violent protests and evidence of a fledgling economic recovery running out of steam have all dampened the mood in the run-up to the six-month event.
But Italy is a past master at delivering at the 11th hour -- the finishing touches to some of the stadiums for the 1990 World Cup came within minutes of kick-off.
And a spectacular eve-of-opening concert, featuring tenor Andrea Bocelli, Chinese pianist Lang Lang and the choir and opera of the city's renowned La Scala opera house performing in front of Milan's magnificent Gothic cathedral, was a reminder of the country's capacity to compensate with creativity for its shortcomings in the more humdrum aspects of event planning.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been bullishly predicting that it will all be alright on the night, facing down the opponents who say a state with Italy's unsustainable debt should not be ploughing money into an event that is, by definition, ephemeral in nature.
Those opponents are due to stage a major march on Friday and fears of a spillover into violence were raised by incidents on the eve of the opening, when a few dozen masked protestors attempted to spray-paint and smash the windows of a branch of Manpower, an employment agency that is one of the official partners of the Expo.
- Milan seeking reinvention -
Italy secured the rights to host the Expo seven years ago, long before Renzi came to power last year. But he has embraced it as an opportunity for Italy to show the world that it is reinventing itself under his leadership.
The event plays to Italy's strengths with its nutrition and gastronomy-based theme of "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life."
Organisers are predicting 20 million visitors over six months and a 10-billion-euro boost to economic activity through increased tourist revenues and other, harder to measure, benefits such as increased investment.
More than a million Chinese are expected to visit Milan for the Expo and Italian officials are hoping some of them will become long-term business partners as the economic relationship between the two countries flourishes.
For Milan, the Expo is also about reinvention with the city seeking to forge a new image as a 21st Century "smart" city that is defined as much by its flair for gastronomy, design and sustainable living as by its industrial past.
There will be tight airport-style security around the site and a huge police presence on Friday in anticipation of the "No Expo" movement's march.
Earlier this week, police carried out pre-emptive raids on radical groups suspected of planning to ensure the demonstration turns into a showdown with the security forces.
Officers seized fireworks, baseball bats, gas masks and material which could be used to make Molotov cocktails.
The organisers of Friday's demonstration have insisted it will be peaceful and accuse the police and media of whipping up public alarm because they are fearful that there will be more people protesting than visiting the Expo.
The Expo's critics have focused on the conditions of some of the 6,000 employees who have been engaged on a work experience basis, as well as the involvement of corporations such as McDonalds and Coca Cola, saying that has stripped the event of any environmental credibility.