Any Azzurri fans watching Italy vs. Ireland on Wednesday evening would have been forgiven for thinking their team had been transported back to 2004 and were playing under Giovanni Trapattoni, instead of current Coach Marcello Lippi. What was meant to be a World Cup qualifying match essentially became an exercise in defence for the Italians – much like all matches under Trap became when they took the lead, when after just four minutes striker Giampaolo Pazzini was shown a ridiculous red card by referee Wolfgang Stark for supposedly elbowing defender John O’Shea. Instead of actually judging the incident itself, the German official chose to concentrate on the blood pouring down the Irishman’s face, and automatically assumed that the offence was worthy of a red card when in actual fact it was not worthy of any punishment at all.
The unfortunate result of this farcical decision was 91 minutes of defending for the Azzurri, as Ireland dominated most of the possession. As was often the case during Trap’s tenure, Italy was unable to keep the slender lead, succumbing to a Robbie Keane goal in the 88th minute. Unlike those years under the current Ireland Coach, this was a forced method of playing due to having 10 men for more or less the entire game. Marcello Lippi was understandably unhappy at the refereeing performance, clearly of the opinion that his controversial decision was the sole reason that his side did not pick up all three points. FIGC President Giancarlo Abete was also irritated by the decision but as his opinions on the incident were gathered at half-time by Italian TV station Rai Uno (who were broadcasting the match), his ire did not match that of his Coach.
The lack of parity between the two teams means it is difficult for us to learn anything new about this Italy team. Lippi’s refusal to introduce Giuseppe Rossi into a side that was blatantly lacking a genuine attacking threat on Saturday would have raised eyebrows, especially as he had integrated him into the first-team in training in the build-up to the match. In the long-term, it is a worrying demonstration of the stubbornness of the Tuscan Tactician. Whilst Rossi’s presence on the pitch would not have changed the result, fresh attacking thrust was the order of the day if the performance against Montenegro was anything to go by. The gap in the team was created by Antonio Di Natale’s injury, but the unlucky Pazzini was preferred as replacement. The 4-2-3-1 formation was on show again, but swiftly changed to 4-4-1 when they went a man down. Andrea Pirlo, playing on the left in the amended formation, highlighted his quality by playing a key role in Vincenzo Iaquinta’s goal. He was the one ray of creativity for the Azzurri, as Simone Pepe once more offered plenty of running but little productivity.
Half-time would then have caused more than a few quizzical looks on the watching fans in the Stadio San Nicola, as Pirlo was withdrawn for Angelo Palombo (dropped in favour of Matteo Brighi for this game). That left a midfield quartet of Brighi, Palombo, Daniele De Rossi and Pepe. Very hard working, full of energy, but of no threat whatsoever to the Irish defence. With only Roma’s De Rossi capable of anything resembling a creative pass, Ireland were comfortable in the knowledge that Italy would not be looking to add to their one goal. In fact, simply retaining ball possession became a problem, so much so that the Boys in Green finished the match with 53% of possession, despite being away from home. Naturally this was partly due to the deficit in players, but one would think keeping an individual who is an expert in ball retention would have given Trapattoni and his players something to think about. The Irish back four could push up, with only one striker to deal with and no incisive offerings from the Italian midfield.
It is important to refrain from piling the criticism on to the Italian Coach. Yes, he could have given his team a hand by keeping Pirlo on the pitch (transmitting a slightly more positive mentality in the process), he could also have resisted introducing Andrea Dossena into the action so early, but the remit of the players in the second half would not have altered, more made somewhat easier. The defensive performance was, like Saturday’s effort, on the whole superb. There were a few errors, and Ireland did create chances, but that is to be expected when you have one extra player and considerably more possession. It is a shame that the fatigue that accompanies such dogged defence got the better of them, and that Robbie Keane was left unmarked with three Italian defenders all being drawn towards the ball (Giorgio Chiellini was at most fault here).
Frustration at the missed opportunity to practically seal the group and a place to South Africa will be the predominant feeling amongst the players. Five points could have been the gap at this moment in time. A trip to Georgia and a home match against unbeaten Bulgaria in September, a traditionally tough month for the Italian national team due to the late start of the Serie A season, means that the prospect of more dropped points and the closure of the two point gap that currently exists between themselves and second place, still looms over the team. However, it is quite clear the key clash will come in October, when the Azzurri visit Dublin to face the Irish for a second time. The failure to win on Wednesday night has meant that a draw at Croke Park may well be a dangerous result. The final game a home to Cyprus may appear a reasonably secure three points, but the pressure of needing to win could well hit if second place are within striking distance. The name of Wolfgang Stark may yet be imprinted into the history of this qualifying campaign.