If ever there was an example of the difference a top striker can make to a team, Friday night’s game against Northern Ireland is the perfect 90 minutes to use as a demonstration. Italy dominated the game, controlling it for lengthy periods and fashioning goalscoring chances, but without a top striker games such as this will pass the Azzurri by.
The shape was no different and the addition of Stefano Mauri to the midfield had the desired impact for the first 60 minutes. As an instinctively attacking player, his support to the front men was consistent for much of his time on the pitch, vital against dogged teams like the one they met in Belfast. The midfield as a whole was very impressive, with Andrea Pirlo revelling in the space he was afforded by a Northern Irish team more concerned with ensuring they had numbers deep behind the ball than applying pressure to the No.21.
It was tough work for Cesare Prandelli’s men, especially as this particular side lacks the quality of previous incarnations. For everything that came off for Pirlo, nothing worked for Antonio Cassano, who endured a frustrating night. Despite finding space on numerous occasions in a congested area of the pitch, his final ball was either not up to scratch, or well defended by the Irish. On the rare occasion that Cassano, or any other member of the team, managed to create something, it was wasted by the striker.
First up was Marco Borriello, who went some way to vindicating Milan’s decision to swap him with Zlatan Ibrahimović by aiming straight at Maik Taylor from seven yards when a gap was present at the near post. His second opportunity, created for him by Mauri, was admittedly tougher as he was forced away from goal under pressure from a swarm of green shirts. Borriello’s replacement in the match, Giampaolo Pazzini, also aided the home side’s quest for the point they set out for by missing an arguably easier chance – at least Borriello’s effort was on target.
That was it for chances – Simone Pepe found himself in a similar position to Pazzini, but with an even more acute angle, he can be forgiven for not testing Taylor. In tight matches, two glorious chances may well be all a team gets, and whether Borriello or Pazzini are clinical enough to take advantage is debatable. Despite his faults, Alberto Gilardino in all probability remains Italy’s best striker for goals, and as he will head into the 2014 World Cup aged 31, there is no reason to jettison him for younger blood.
Mattia Cassani is in a similar position to Gilardino – his age will potentially leave him at the upper boundary for 2014 (he will be 30 by then), but providing he continues to perform as he did on Friday evening, he will be in contention. He was not troubled too much defensively, and on the two occasions he was taxed, he dealt with tricky aerial balls superbly. Any full-back playing for a top team at international level will always look good when given the space and freedom to bomb forward, but it is what you do defensively that determines a starting spot (Marco Motta, take note).
On the opposite flank, Domenico Criscito was pleasingly welcomed back into the fold, having somehow been caught up in the post-mortem of the disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign, even though he did precious little wrong. He was not as adventurous as his colleague on the right hand side, but then he had the free-roaming Cassano in front of him, as opposed to the industry and hard-work of Pepe, which no doubt required more thought and consideration of his defensive duties. He nevertheless remains the future at left-back, with each passing competitive game contributing enormously to his development.
There was one major first-half scare when Northern Ireland’s David Healy glanced a header from a right-wing cross wide from little more than six yards out, but otherwise the match was played largely in the home side’s third of the pitch.
Serbia’s incredible home defeat to Estonia, who are now second in the group, makes the result something of a double-edged sword. Taking into account Northern Ireland’s lengthy list of Windsor Park victims and the Serbian defeat, a draw is a creditable result that leaves Italy on top of the group. There is also the lingering feeling of a missed opportunity – three points should have been gained from such a dominant performance that would have given the Azzurri total control of the group (which would have turned into an iron grip with a win over Serbia on Tuesday). It would be remarkable if Estonia managed to maintain their current pace, and if Serbia are defeated at Marassi on Tuesday, Italy would benefit from turning their attention to the other Balkan nation.