One key takeaway from Luciano Spalletti’s debut as the Italy coach: The Tuscan gaffer has much work to do to revamp an anemic version of the Azzurri. Italy failed to overcome their North Macedonia nemesis on Saturday night as they were held to a 1-1 draw in Skopje in the third game of their Euro 2024 qualifiers campaign.
The Azzurri took the lead with Ciro Immobile early into the second half after playing a solid but unproductive first period. But then they pulled the brake too early, allowing the Balkan side to gain confidence and punish the Italians with a clinical free kick from Enis Bardhi.
Tonight’s draw puts Italy in a precarious condition on the way to next year’s European Championship. They have collected only four points out of three games so far. Their next match – against Ukraine in Milan next Tuesday – will be crucial.
Spalletti hasn’t had much time to work since he abruptly inherited Roberto Mancini’s Italy – the worn out, bewildered version of his post Euro 2020 “second term”. Yet, the Azzurri fans were hoping for a more encouraging start, one that would at least cancel the shame of the Palermo loss to North Macedonia in 2022, which forced Italy to watch the World Cup from home for the second time in a row.
Spalletti’s first lineup featured Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Federico Dimarco as full backs, with Gianluca Mancini and Alessandro Bastoni playing in the middle of the defense.
The midfield trio featured Bryan Cristante, Nicoló Barella, and Sandro Tonali. Ciro Immobile retained his spot as center forward and wore the captain armband for the first time, while the two wingers were Matteo Politano and Mattia Zaccagni.
Spalletti was surely hoping for the latter two to add depth to Italy’s offensive options but they both disappointed, especially the Napoli player who was replaced by Nicoló Zaniolo at half time.
The best things seen from Italy tonight came from the midfield line. Barella worked with Dimarco early in the game to set the Inter wingback free to shot, but Dimarco rather went for a pass that was intercepted by the Macedonian backline.
The Inter dynamo then picked Tonali with a perfectly-time lob pass beyond the opposition defense, but the former Milan man’s shot hit the post and then the back of the Macedonian goalkeeper before sailing past the end line. Bad luck. From the subsequent corner kick, Cristante saw his tap in attempt pushed back by goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski.
Perhaps Italy would have deserved one goal, but it needs to to be said that the Azzurri were also spared by Bojan Miovski, who headed the ball off target from point blank range, wasting a brilliant Ezgjan Alioski cross at the far post.
At half time, the score was still nil-nil as Italy showed a concerning inconsistency upfront. It took a brilliant piece of magic from Barella – Italy’s unquestioned MVP tonight – to put the Azzurri finally in the lead as the Sardinia-born midfielder made Dimitrievski’s crossbar rattle with a spectacular right-footed conclusion. Immobile pounced on the rebound to head the ball home, making it 1-0.
It was the first goal from open play since June 2021 for the Azzurri captain but, aside from that, the Lazio forward once again failed to make a real impact on Italy’s front line.
One goal would have been enough to at least set Spalletti off to a good start. However, after breaking the deadlock, Italy fell back into their old habit of defending a slim lead rather than going for the kill. It is something that Roberto Mancini seemed to have eradicated from the Azzurri‘s mentality, at least in the early stages of his tenure, but has fatally come back recently.
Italy seemed tired and nervous in the last part of the game, and lacked ideas. The North Macedonians sensed that and started to push them back into their own half. Spalletti’s troops had no other options that fouling the opposition to break their counters.
From one of those subsequent free kicks, Trabzonspor midfielder Bardhi conjured a mischievous curl that caught Gianluigi Donnarumma by surprise, extending the North Macedonian curse for Italy. Yes, Spalletti has much work to do.
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