Italy squandered a host of chances to drop two points in Belfast on Friday night against Northern Ireland. Whilst the defence is the usual focal point of criticism, it was the Azzurri attack that let the team down – squandering countless opportunities to achieve a win that would have seen them go clear at the top of the qualifying table.
Whilst Cesare Prandelli had to contend with a long list of injuries, his constant change in tactics, his choice of formations and his absurdly late substitutions hindered the Azzurri from earning vital points.
In the first half, we saw Prandelli deploy his preferred 4-3-3 formation which effectively pitted only one real striker against four defenders – and an ineffective one at that. Without real wingers who could provide crosses and exploit the space on the flanks, the formation was rendered largely useless in attack. With Antonio Cassano drifting into the middle and Simone Pepe running around the pitch without any direction, only the full-backs benefitted as they found open space to penetrate. Without short tight passes that stretched the attack wide, the Azzurri were reduced to playing long balls to the top of the pitch in hopes of finding Borriello who would often waste any opportunities that did arise.
The play was sloppy, many of the attacks were bizarrely centred through the middle and the Azzurri players looked bereft of any passing talent. Andrea Pirlo looked like the only man capable of delivering a ball that would eventually be tapped in and yet without a productive target man up top, Prandelli needed to change tactics.
Italy started the second half with real intent and a new formation. Trouble is it still failed to properly utilise the strengths of the squad in the way a diamond formation perhaps would have. What did improve however was the passing and the away side began creating more chances for Pepe and Borriello to fritter away. With Northern Ireland seemingly under pressure, it surely was only a matter of time before they conceded a goal and thus two attacking substitutions were quickly required to take advantage of the team’s build-up of play.
Unfortunately, Prandelli waited until 15 minutes before the final whistle to start making the sort of substitutions that were urgently needed earlier. By the time the fresh legs arrived on to the pitch, they had little time to impact the game positively. In only six minutes, Giuseppe Rossi demonstrated how much of a threat he could be on the right thus begging the question, why was Pepe preferred?
Despite him going back often to act as a make-shift full-back and running tirelessly up and down the pitch, his final ball and inaccurate passing meant Italy often lost possession after tirelessly working the ball up the pitch and into the final third.
As for Borriello, we have been made to believe that he was only selected due to the growing list of injuries but his inconsistent displays for the national team, coupled with his inability to properly aim and finish should mean he is left in the stands despite the unavailability of others. With only Andrea Pirlo and Cassano providing the creativity in the team, the striker chosen to lead the front line should be a little more imaginative or at the very least clinical.
For some reason the ex-Fiorentina Coach seems incapable of selecting a proper starting XI and yet he always knows exactly how to adjust the squad through substitutions. Had he fielded a stronger attacking trident from the offset or even if he left his substitutes enough time to produce something positive, Italy would have more than likely scored a goal. However with ample choices in the attack it is a problem that has a solution provided the right balance is found.
Despite the setback, Prandelli should be praised for his work on the defence. The back-line, who admittedly, was rarely threatened, seemed assured, well organised and united in the mission to defend and much of it was down to the brilliance of the full-backs. Both Mattia Cassani and Domenico Criscito (comically pronounced Kris-Kito by the Sky Sports commentators) contributed generously to the attacking movement of the team and exploited the ample space offered to them on the wings to provide necessary passes and crosses. In defence, they balanced out their duties well and always ran back in time to intervene. Cassani especially controlled his area well and did his utmost to keep the ball away from the tall Kyle Lafferty as he excelled in his line of duty. His reliable performances thus far for the Azzurri undoubtedly secure his role on the right.
It will be interesting to see how well this defence will cope against the speedy Serbian players who have thus far failed to live up to expectations in the group. One only hopes the full-backs will pull off another excellent performance.