Italy and Ukraine played to a 1-1 draw last night in Genoa at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris where recent struggles persisted yet again for the Azzurri.
The Italians controlled proceedings in the first half, pinning Andriy Shevchenko’s men back and stirring up several quality chances that unfortunately could not best keeper Andriy Pytatov. Early on in the second 45 minutes however, Roberto Mancini found his breakthrough via a Federico Bernardeschi strike that Pyatov fluffed and could not prevent from squeaking into the net. It would be a short lived lead as Ukraine leveled in the 62nd minute after a lapse of concentration in the back from the Italy defence.
Certainly, Mancini and the proud, yet distraught, Italian fanbase must feel disappointed in the result considering the polar opposite halves of play, not to mention the state of ‘La Nazionale’ at this time. However, one of the few positives to take from the tie was the shift Cagliari product Nicolo Barella turned in on his impressive Azzurri debut.
Boasting an array of raw technical ability and positional flexibility, Barella’s potential has been understood for a while now, with supporters campaigning for him to get into the senior team framework. The 21-year old had been called up roughly a year ago under Gian Piero Ventura for Italy’s World Cup qualifiers versus Macedonia and Albania, but did not feature. His usage, or lack thereof, was not a question of his quality or readiness for the responsibility. Rather, just a simple case of not having the proper manager or ideal opportunity. Last night, the youngster finally got his feet wet and left a lasting impression on the home crowd.
Mancini rolled out a 4-3-3, with a midfield trio consisting of Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Barella. The first two gelled well for the most part, stringing together some good passing sequences and dictating the tempo to assignment. Despite being orchestrators for their respective club teams, neither Verratti nor Jorginho seemed to step on each other’s toes and fulfilled their duties so that Barella could be the all-action midfielder tasked with freely getting up and down the pitch.
Barella, a robust but strong and agile midfielder, gave us an exhibition that demonstrated all that he offers even at a young age; technically sound, intelligent, understanding when to float into pockets of space for the ball and the high work-rate tying it all together to win over his coach.
Despite not picking up the desired results early in his tenure, Mancini must be given some credit for succeeding where others before him failed in handing important minutes to youth and attempting to usher younger players in each break. The manner in which Barella approached the match last night showed he was equally prepared for both the physical and mental test, with a little guidance from Jorginho and Verratti as lamented in his post-match interview.
Composed, and confidently navigating through tightly-marked situations with the ball, the former U-21 starlet passed the first challenge Ukraine presented – and performed well in Italy blue.
Barella’s exploits for his boyhood club in Sardegna over the past few years have not gone unnoticed around Italy and the rest of Europe as several major outfits lurk for his signature. Milan, Inter and Liverpool are among many top clubs courting the Italian, and the list is fully expected to grow with each passing performance for both club and country. While Barella probably could have moved on last summer to a bigger stage, the decision to stay put an additional year at Cagliari for further seasoning was for the better, and puts him in position to be a regular fixture in Mancini’s plans long-term.