Feature Photo: Antonio Calanni / AP
While Italy coach Roberto Mancini is widely expected to steer the national team in a new direction following his squad’s summer of shame spent watching World Cup 2018 on television it appears the road to redemption for the Azzurri has some way to be trodden.
A controversial penalty converted by Jorginho last night snatched a point in their Nations League home debut versus Poland. Mancini’s trust in Mario Balotelli meanwhile was not repaid and it took the entrance of Federico Chiesa to shake up an Italian side that was felled in the first half by Neapolitan midfielder Piotr Zielinksi’s goal.
The match took place at the Renato Dall’Ara Stadium in Bologna, where in 1981 he began life as a professional player at just 16 years of age. There was little time for emotion last night though as the Azzurri were quickly pressured and mauled by a Polish side also striving for redemption.
The Russian World Cup was a major disappointment for Polish supporters, ultimately claiming the head of departing coach Adam Nawalka after a disappointing group stage elimination. New manager Jerzy Brzęczek started with a solid troop of players, but showed no fear of making unexpected decisions when he deployed seasoned goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski between the sticks in place of Wojciech Szczesny of Juventus.
And so, a Polish team packed with players who make their living every weekend in Serie A – Piotr Zielinski, Bartosz Bereszyński, Karol Linetty to name a few – gave the Nazionale a hard time on Mancini’s home turf, exposing a concerning lack of quality. The fact that many of Mancini’s choices do not command clear starting spots at their respective clubs says a great deal about the current condition of Italy’s pool of talent.
Credit must go to the former Sampdoria and Lazio star for adjusting his line-up on the fly, inserting Giacomo Bonaventura, Andrea Belotti and Federico Chiesa during the second half – with Italy 0-1 down and the 20,000 home supporters of the Dall’Ara restless. The Azzurri risked starting the newly-born UEFA competition off on the wrong foot.
The good news for the new coach was found in the depth of his goalkeeping resources. AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma won the run-off to inherit the legacy of Gianluigi Buffon as starting keeper, over Mattia Perin and Salvatore Sirigu. The 19-year-old helped keep his side afloat on at least two occasions when the score was 0-0.
With new captain Giorgio Chiellini and Juventus’ comeback-kid Leonardo Bonucci making up the central defensive unit, the line was completed by debutants Cristiano Biraghi and Davide Zappacosta in the full back positions. Fiorentina’s left back showed some good determination but also some limitations, exemplified by his frantic attempts to cross the ball during stoppage time which were frustrated three times in succession by the Polish defense. Zappacosta meanwhile is yet to record a single minute of play this season at Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea, and that is a concern.
Mancini’s midfield line also shows signs of a lack of quality, with Roberto Gagliardini and Lorenzo Pellegrini also struggling to accumulate minutes at Inter and Roma respectively. Jorginho, on the other hand, has claimed a key spot in Chelsea’s midfield, but his performance yesterday was Jekyll and Hyde; Napoli’s former number 5 converted the penalty that pulled his coach’s chestnuts out of the fire, but Poland’s lead had actually originated from one of his many mistakes in the first half.
On the front line, Mancini put Mario Balotelli in charge. His reintegration has been Mancini’s most courageous experiment so far. Mancio had a love-hate relationship with the Italian wildcard during the time they shared at Manchester City, and there remains hope he will bring back the days when he used to flex muscles after scoring braces. Still, yesterday was not one of those days. Super Mario left the pitch in the 62nd minute after an impalpable performance, with half of the crowd applauding him and the other half whistling. Balotelli always sparks controversy – no matter what he does.
Lorenzo Insigne played on Balotelli’s left, in a similar position to the one he holds at Napoli. His impact on the game was minimal, showing that maybe his problem with the Azzurri goes beyond former coach Gian Piero Ventura’s forcing him to play wide in a crazy 4-2-4 formation. His counterpart on the right-hand side was Juventus’ Federico Bernardeschi, the most dangerous blue shirt on the pitch before Chiesa’s entrance. Bernardeschi scared the opposition goalkeeper with a couple of razor sharp shots that missed the target by inches. Together with Donnarumma’s saves and Chiesa’s determination, he was the most positive note in Mancini’s night.
It was a night that had a rough start indeed, as just six minutes after kick-off Robert Lewandowski opened a breach on the Azzurri’s left-hand side, and crossed for Zielinksi on the other flank. Donnarumma pushed his shot back from point blank range, and repeated this again 20 minutes later, diving to his right to defuse a volley by Lokomotiv Moscow’s Grzegorz Krychowiak.
Milan’s keeper couldn’t do anything however in the 40th minute, when Jorginho failed twice to control the ball in a dangerous zone, and lost it to Lewandowski. Bayern Munich’s star crossed it again to find Zielinksi on the opposite side, and this time the Napoli’s midfielder’s conversion was lethal. 0-1. Mancini grabbed his jacket and nervously started to wait for the half time whistle, and must surely have made himself heard in the locker room shortly after.
Italy re-emerged with one change to their line-up; Giacomo Bonaventura replacing Pellegrini. In the 62nd minute, Mancini also decided he had had enough of Balotelli’s apathy and substituted him for Gallo Belotti. 10 minutes later he also added Fiorentina’s young talent Chiesa – pulling out Insigne. Curiously the best-performing Italian striker from last season – Lazio’s Ciro Immobile – was left on the bench despite a long warm-up during half-time.
Mancio’s reshuffling produced a change in the trend of the match, although the Poles remained dangerous – an acrobatic shot by Lewandowski went narrowly off-target. Bonaventura and Insigne called Fabianski to a double-save in the 70th minute but they were both deemed offside. Chiesa tried to surprise him with a long-range shot deflected by Kamil Glik, finding West Ham United’s keeper alert.
With just 10 minutes to go, the 20 year old figlio d’arte (his father Enrico collected 22 caps for the Azzurri in the ‘90s) caused the Polish defense problems on the right-hand side, and forced Jakub Błaszczykowski to knock him down in the box. The Polish winger hit the ball before tackling Chiesa, but the German referee Felix Zwayer pointed to the penalty spot..
When both Mancini and Donnarumma refused to watch as Jorginho resolutely converted the penalty, it showed how much was at stake in yesterday’s game for a staggering Nazionale, which has not won a competitive match since last October’s scant 1-0 victory over Albania. But it will take more than Italian scaramanzia on Monday, when they face Portugal in Lisbon for their second UEFA Nations League group match.
Roberto Mancini will need to work on many areas, and may make one or two changes to the starting eleven. Still, the Belpaese footballdom needs to face the reality that Italy’s problems do not stretch much beyond what we saw last night – with players failing to replicate what they do with their clubs, and no real fuoriclasse in sight. Italy is worth more than the 21st place they currently hold in the FIFA rankings (and, on a side note, the Nations League may help lead to a more balanced calculation of it) but the days of Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero or, well, even Fabio Grosso are long in the memory.
September 7, 2018 – UEFA Nations League A 2018-19 Group 3
SCORERS: 40′ Zielinski (P), 78′ Jorginho (I, pen.)
|ITALY (4-3-3): Donnarumma; Zappacosta, Bonucci, Chiellini, Biraghi; Gagliardini, Jorginho, Pellegrini (46′ Bonaventura); Bernardeschi, Balotelli (62′ Belotti), Insigne (72′ Chiesa) (Sirigu, Perin, Barella, Criscito, Romagnoli, Berardi, Caldara, Immobile, Benassi) Coach: Mancini|
|POLAND (4-4-1-1): Fabianski; Bereszynski, Glik, Bednarek, Reca; Blaszczykowski (80′ Pietrzak), Klich (56′ Szymanski), Kurzawa; Zielinski (66′ Linetty); Lewandowski (Szczesny, Skorupski, Pietrzak, Kedziora, Dzwigala, Milik, Frankowski, Kadzior, Kaminski, Piatek) Coach: Brzeczek|
REFEREE: Zwayer (Germany)
NOTES: Attendance: 24,000; Yellow Cards: Chiellini (I), Kich, Blaszczykowski, Fabianski (P); Extra Time: 1st Half 2′, 2nd Half 4′