We have seen it before and we will doubtless see it again – Italy prove themselves less than scintillating against distinctly ordinary opposition as they struggle to successive 1-0 qualifier wins. The point is, however, that Italy keep on winning and after last weekend’s victories against Malta and Bulgaria, they are back on top of Euro 2016 qualifying Group H.
France, here we come, or rather here we are coming since despite those wins, Italy still have to pick up points in their final two games, away to Azerbaijan and at home to Norway, to guarantee that they stay top of qualifying Group H. Whilst no serious commentator has ever harboured any real doubts about Italy’s qualification for these enlarged-numbers European Championship finals, there is plenty of concern about the progress (or lack of) made by the “azzurri” of ex-Juventus maestro, Antonio Conte, who took charge just one year ago.
Unimpressive 1-1 draws against Croatia in games that the Croats probably should have won, two less than overwhelming 1-0 wins against Malta (most recently last week) and a 2-2 away draw with Bulgaria have hardly set the world alight. However – and with Italy, there is always a “however” – unimpressive qualifying games do not always mean a lot. We are willing to speculate here and now that, come next summer, Conte’s team will prove itself a very serious dude indeed, leaving far behind the humiliating Italian first round elimination at last year’s World Cup finals in Brazil.
Against Malta in Florence, for example, Italy were at times dreadful, looking slow, less than hungry and rather under-motivated. The well-organised Maltese, coached by ex-Italy number two, former Lazio player Pietro Ghedin, hardly surprised anyone by spending most of the game in their own penalty area, causing the inevitable, defensive traffic jams. Yet, ironically, it was the less than ambitious Maltese who came closest to scoring in the first half, thanks to their Maltese-naturalised, Nigerian striker Alfred Effiong.
In the end, Italy’s winning goal was hardly satisfactory in as much as Southampton striker, Graziano Pellè, appeared to score with his upper arm rather than his head after the Maltese ‘keeper Andrew Hogg had completely missed out a Candreva cross. This was a goal that many referees would have disallowed, however…no looking gift horses in the mouth.
Against Bulgaria last night, the result was the same but this time, the music had changed in a game in which Italy should probably have had it wrapped up long before the end of a hot, humid night in Palermo. Hero and villain of the piece was Roma’s Daniele De Rossi who scored the winning goal in only the 6th minute from the penalty spot (twice, since he was ordered to retake the spot kick by Russian referee Sergei Karasev) only to then get himself sent off, along with Bulgarian Ilijan Mitsanski, in the 56th minute.
By comparison with the team which had faced Malta, Conte made some significant changes last night. Firstly, he started the match this time with Candreva, arguably Italy’s most potent wide man who had come on as a sub against Malta. Secondly, he dropped US exile, 36-year-old Andrea Pirlo, replacing him with De Rossi in his typical, deep lying midfield role in front of the defence. The effect of this, inevitably, was to leave PSG schemer Marco Verratti more room to direct the midfield traffic. Not for nothing, relieved of the psychological pressure of playing in the shadow of Pirlo, the PSG man had an excellent game.
On top of that, Conte recalled Milan right back Mattia De Sciglio and Monaco striker, Stephan El Shaaraway, who both had excellent games. Even Conte had to admit, though, that he was less than fully satisfied, saying afterwards:
“We picked up six points in two games and that is what matters. I am sorry that tonight’s result was hanging in the balance right to the end. You can always have a bit of bad luck, a ball bounces strangely….”
As he said this, however, Conte hardly looked or sounded like a worried man. He knows only too well that Italy rarely perform well in September, that for motivation-related reasons, they often struggle against “minnows” like Malta and that, whatever else, they can and will up their game when the situation requires it.
Conte also issued that ritual comment about the “doors of the national team are not closed to anyone” adding that “for example, it the European Championships had been held this summer, I would have called up (38-year-old) Toni…I mean, a guy who scores 22 goals (in Serie A)”.
No one really thinks that Conte will be looking to Toni next summer in France but his comments do make one wonder if the spectre of a certain Mario Balotelli, lately returned to Italian football, will be crossing his mind…That is for the future. In the meantime, this is looking like another Italian “mission accomplished”.