After banging in the stoppage-time goal at the back post thanks to substitute Kevin Lasagna’s initial glancing header from the corner, Fiorentina’s Cristiano Biraghi’s late-game heroics were enough to see Italy past Poland 1-0 on Sunday, escaping relegation from Group 3 in the UEFA Nations League.
The 26-year old celebrated his first international tally by throwing up a “13″ towards the heavens in honor of the late Viola captain Davide Astori. Surely, it was a unifying moment for Italy and Italians everywhere who swarmed the match-winner and finally had something to rally around after 12 months of heartbreak.
The Azzurri established control from the opening whistle, ambushing Jerzy Brzęczek’s scuffling Poland side with an aggressive high-press, pinning back the defence and preventing the Poles from effectively building-up. Yet, without question, the biggest talking point from the win was the harmonizing and fluid play from Roberto Mancini’s newly formed midfield trio of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and recent debutant Nicolo Barella.
Verratti, Jorginho and Barella displayed the ability to set the tempo, play out of pressure and initiate counter-attacks, yielding a plethora of real scoring chances that unfortunately went awry. ’Mancio’ seems to now have the solution to the residual midfield problem left behind by Gian Piero Ventura, establishing a unit who can string together passes efficiently and effectively to advance play, while also supporting in Italy’s plan to mirror what rivaling powers have been able to accomplish over this difficult period.
Dominating in the midfield trenches, and just about every facet of the game, Italy’s performance was widely considered to be the four-time World Cup winners’ best exhibition since Euro 2016 versus Spain. But despite showing obvious growth and potential, supporters must pump the breaks a bit and not get too ahead of themselves.
Italy are within their own right to celebrate the victory given how harrowing this past year has been. However, it is important to understand that one convincing performance does not necessarily mean Italy has turned the corner from bad habits, nor should Italians be content with a product that can either flirt with success or fail to transmit the winning mentality required to mend the gap between them and the current top ranked nations.
Days before Sunday’s inspiring win, Italy played to a 1-1 draw with Ukraine at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris that was, in essence, a mixed-bag Azzurri: promising and showing obvious life in the first half, but underwhelming and uninventive in the second. Top to bottom, Italy have more than enough individual quality to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup last November, and now climb out from this hole they remain in, but as a group fail still leave the conversation open for doubt and warranted criticism.
Mancini’s deployed a 4-3-3 without a pure striking force, calling on a number 10 in Lorenzo Insigne to play a bit of an unconventional ‘false 9′ role. Whether or not the Napoli star is a longterm option here remains to be seen. But on the surface, it seems as though Mancini isn’t quite sold on the current player pool of number nines to snap this goalscoring funk. With names like Ciro Immobile, Andrea Belotti, Mario Balotelli and Patrick Cutrone to choose from, one would assume Mancini can find a viable candidate to spearhead the attack, but that isn’t the case here.
Against a declining Poland, Italy were fortunate enough to find a breakthrough with one of their 18 total shots. However, superior, more organized outfits likely will not commit the same errors the Poles did nor relinquish a ton of high-percentage opportunities, meaning Mancini’s winning blueprint from Sunday isn’t a final draft.
There is a clear sign of improvement in the creation of chances, and an identity is slowly crystallizing to the point where Mancini’s leaving an impression on the squad. But this cannot be a one-off showing where Italy take one step forward, and then two steps back to old ways.
Italy have a month to prepare for their final Nations League group match at the San Siro against Portugal. The Euro 2016 winner will present a real challenge to the Italians and give us a more accurate forecast of their path. For Italy to be “back”, they must show a sustained stretch of good form and play. Otherwise, the struggles of the past will linger.
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