It is always difficult to assess games such as the one the Azzurri participated in on Saturday evening. So much excitement and over-reaction occurs at good individual performances, and very little thought is given to the standard of opposition. There is a clear danger of this surrounding Marcello Lippi and his men after a convincing 3-0 victory over Northern Ireland in Pisa.
For the first time in a long while there are actually a few positive aspects to a performance by the world champions. The debutants who have a future at international level, Davide Santon, Gaetano D’Agostino and Federico Marchetti, all put in splendid performances (though the latter was a spectator for the majority of the match). Santon made a seamless transfer to the international arena. He looked comfortable on the ball and sound defensively, as did D’Agostino, whose performance was more than a passing resemblance to Andrea Pirlo playing at his best. Always willing to take the ball from the two centre-backs, his range of passing was particularly impressive, even if they did not all reach their intended target.
The other debutants, such as Giuseppe Mascara and Sergio Pellissier, were given token caps for good seasons in Serie A. These two are unlikely to be seen again in the blue shirt unless there is a mass injury crisis in the attacking areas. At 30-years-old, both men are too old for a team who need to start looking at the younger options. Then again, Lippi could have picked anybody, and they would have looked great in this game. Northern Ireland is not a good side at the best of times, let alone when they play with the line-up that was on show on Saturday. Four debutants started the match, and a further four came on during the second half, and their inexperience was made all the more apparent by the superior opposition.
The Tuscan Coach had another stab at the 4-2-3-1 formation for the game, and kept it this way for the entire match, only changing personnel for each position. Unfortunately, the match highlighted that the identity of the players in each position is vital. For example, simply having Giuseppe Rossi on the pitch is not enough. He started the match on the right hand side, with Mascara on the left. His influence on Italy’s forward play was minimal, despite his goal. Starting from a wide position does not suit the Villarreal man. He is a central player, and his best work is done in the middle. His goal was a rasping shot from a left-centre position on the pitch, yet he had to come across from the right to get there. As such, his time spent in central areas in the first-half was too short. He cannot cause anywhere near as much trouble when only one defender has to worry about him, in this instance left-back Ryan McGivern.
Riccardo Montolivo is another case in point. He was given the task of supporting the front players through the centre and actually ensuring the system was a 4-2-3-1. However, the Fiorentina man is clearly not comfortable with this role. He enjoyed only one good moment playing in the position that was set out for him by Lippi, where his dummy over the ball led to him being put through on goal. This aside, he looked uncomfortable and just does not get into areas of the pitch that are most effective.
This column has mentioned before that his goalscoring record does not suggest that he is a midfielder who is used to playing so high up the field, or arriving late in the box. His presence was detrimental to the overall performance, his tendency to drop deep into the midfield (close to Gennaro Gattuso and D’Agostino), and stay deep, meant the formation became a flat 4-3-3 for too long in the first 45 minutes. If Lippi wants to extract the best from Montolivo, he needs to accept that he is best suited to playing in a similar position to D’Agostino. A deeper role, where his calmness on the ball and clever distribution can be of value, and where there is not so much pressure to get forward (though with this sort of role, there is plenty of scope for helping in attacking situations).
The 24-year-old was substituted, again, at half-time, with Angelo Palombo on in his place. This was one of four substitutions at the interval that resulted in Matteo Brighi playing on the left, Pasquale Foggia on the right, and Rossi finally being given the central role he needed. Unlike Montolivo, he was more than able to keep the formation a 4-2-3-1, as he did not drop back into the midfield, instead lurking between them and striker Giampaolo Pazzini. It is no coincidence that the potency of the Azzurri was hugely increased in the second half. Rossi’s positioning caused confusion in the Northern Irish defensive unit, and his smart movement of the ball and ability to run at, and beat a man led to numerous opportunities for goals. His future for the national side must surely lie here, especially with the continued absence of Antonio Cassano from the squad. The youngster is one of the most technically gifted players in the squad, and has the potential to lead la Nazionale in 2010. There is no excuse for shoving such a talent to the periphery, essentially wasting his ability.
Pasquale Foggia is another individual who impressed after the break, and who played his part in giving the Azzurri the thrust that was lacking. Whether he has a long-term future at this level is debatable. It is all well and good delivering against one of the weakest teams Italy will play for a long time, but he has not consistently demonstrated the quality required to succeed against the best. Milan was more than happy to let him go two years ago, and whilst he has performed very well in that time at Lazio, it has not been good enough to cause any regret in the Rossoneri hierarchy. He has been on the edge of the Italy squad for some time now, and the fact that he does not consistently feature in it is testament to his up-and-down performances at club level. He has strong competition for his place – current holder of the right-sided berth Mauro Camoranesi, Simone Pepe, Fabio Quagliarella, and even Brighi, who has been quietly developing in a more advanced role for Roma and put in a good display playing on the left. With Ciro Ferrara now in charge at Juventus, Sebastian Giovinco may get more chances to play and will surely present himself as a challenger in the not too distant future.
To finish, thoughts must be directed towards the aforementioned Cassano. He is discussed often in this column, and indeed the pieces of many other writers on Football Italiano. However, Lippi appeared to bring the final curtain down on his international career, as long as he is Coach, by leaving him out of the squad for not only the Confederations Cup, but also the two friendly games (Italy play the second against New Zealand on Wednesday). His omission is indefensible, and this now surely confirms the existence of an issue that Lippi has with the player. Fantantonio has been superb this year, so form is not the problem. He was part of the Euro 2008 squad, and apart from a slight altercation in training that was quickly resolved, caused no problems whatsoever with team morale. When compared with the players called up for these latest friendlies – players with no future at all for the Azzurri – it is incredible that the Sampdoria forward was ignored. The World Cup-winning Coach cost the team Christian Panucci in 2006 with a petty feud that he refused to let go. It was a sad indictment of his nature as a Tactician, and it appears he has not changed in this respect. As it turned out, Panucci’s absence did not prove to be costly. His latest feud, with Cassano, will undoubtedly lead to more serious ramifications for the team in 2010.
Italy (4-3-3): Marchetti – Santon, Legrottaglie, Gamberini, Grosso (Dossena 46) – Gattuso (Brighi 46), D’Agostino (Galloppa 75), Montolivo (Palombo 46) – Mascara (Foggia 46), Pazzini (Pellissier 61), Rossi
Northern Ireland (4-1-4-1): Tuffey (Mannus 61)- Johnson, Casement, Coates, McGivern – C Evans (Ferguson 78) – Little (Donnelly 82), O’Connor (Garrett 61), McCann, Carson (Lawrie 69) – Healy (McGinn 45)