Prosciutto pizza and a couple of 4-packs of Moretti was the closest any of us were getting to Italy for this one. The excitement somewhat dulled due to travel restrictions but a task in hand regardless. This game was always going to be a case of damage limitation for Baraclough’s squad, with Italy on a 22-match unbeaten run since their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
It was a fairly predictable Northern Ireland starting XI; the most notable absences Jamal Lewis (injury) and Liam Boyce (new addition to family). The rumoured exodus from international football for some of our more senior squad members thankfully hasn’t happened, with a clear commitment to stick with Bara for this forthcoming World Cup campaign encouraging.
There was no shortage of experience on show, the most notable being Steven Davis’ 125th appearance in an international shirt – matching Peter Shilton’s record held since 1990. Surprisingly, Jordan Thompson and George Saville were both benchwarmers, with each performing well at their respective clubs.
A preferred 5-3-2 saw Paddy McNair team-up alongside Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart in defence, with Gavin Whyte and Josh Magennis the striking options.
Despite a bright start, it did not take too long for Italy to find their rhythm, with some concise passing Northern Ireland simply could not match. Free kicks early on from McNair and a spritely Ali McCann showed intent, but it was only a matter of time before Italy’s dominance paid off.
With Paddy McNair out of position, Domenico Berardi was able to nip in behind Stuart Dallas, shooting left-footed from a tight angle at close range over Bailey Peacock-Farrell. A goal born purely from defensive naivety and one, again, easily avoided. Could BPF have done better? Possibly.
Berardi started to control the game, with both he and Locatelli creating chances with both Whyte and Magennis dropping back for most of the remainder of the half. Despite flashes of flourish, the Italians were in control, capitalising on our clear inability to maintain possession.
Italy have never lost a Word Cup Qualifier at home (an astounding stat) and weren’t going to lose this. Ciro Immobile saw a close-range effort blocked by BPF shortly after taking the lead and Emerson a header just wide.
Our frailties once more played a part in the inevitable second goal. A throw-out from ‘keeper Donnarumma saw two quick passes to the feet of Immobile who shot passed the near post to make it 2-0. Too easy. BPF should have has his near side easily covered, his lack of club games now obvious.
Half-time saw Corry Evans replaced with George Saville and we made a positive start to the second half. Italy showed some weaknesses in defence and a decent cross from Paddy McNair saw Michael Smith volley weakly into the arms of Donnarumma. A glorious opportunity missed.
Northern Ireland capitalised well on the few fragilities Italy were demonstrating defensively. Some link-up play between Davis and Evans saw another great opportunity for Magennis saved by Donnarumma. Northern Ireland had clearly settled into the game. Jonny Evans looked comfortable, sending in a great cross to captain Davis to come close with a volley and applying a cool head when needed.
Magennis and McCann were swapped for Big Laffs and Thompson respectively with neither making any marked impact in time to change the result. Arguably, the best chance of the match came with four minutes left. Steve Davis cleverly passed inside to Paddy McNair only to see his effort blast over the bar. Should have done better.
Based on the gaps demonstrated in ability and possession in the first half, Northern Ireland won’t be embarrassed by this result. There was some encouraging individual performances and Ali McCann will receive plaudits for certain. Equally there were some poor individual displays, with Craig Cathcart looking out of his depth especially. It’s hard to see passed Italy as Group winners but our lads can certainly take heart from a spirited performance, most notably in the second half.
Without doubt, Peacock-Farrell needs club football. At international level, the second goal has to be seen as ‘keeper error, but each and every game is experience gained. Magennis and Whyte up front aren’t going to break any striking records and whilst it’s clear Baraclough is still moulding together his team, leaving certain form players on the bench has raised eyebrows. He’s been around the squad long enough and should know what works and what doesn’t. No wins in his tenure so far doesn’t bode particularly well. Chances don’t come often, especially against quality opposition, so capitalising on them has to be the focus.
Hopefully Sunday’s friendly with the USA can help paper a few cracks, but three points for Wednesday’s game with Bulgaria is now more vital than ever.
Italy 2 (Beradi 14, Immobile 39)
Northern Ireland 0
Donnarumma, Bonucci, Chiellini (c), Emerson (Spinazzola 75), Florenzi, Locatelli (Pessina 84), Pellegrini (Barella 63) Veratti, Berardi (Chiesa 75), Immobile, Insigne (Grifo 84)
Subs Not Used: Cragno, Sirigu, Acerbi, Di Lorenzo, Mancini, Bernardeschi, Belotti
Peacock-Farrell, Cathcart, J.Evans, C.Evans (Saville 46), McNair, Smith, Dallas, Davis (c), McCann (Thompson 78), Whyte (Lavery 63), Magennis (Lafferty 78)
Subs Not Used: Hazard, Hughes, Brown, McLaughlin, Ballard, Ferguson, McGinn, Kennedy
Not Brazil MOTM: Ali McCann