If the Brazil match was an espresso, then this was camomile tea. After the nerve-jolting rush of a comeback draw against the five-time World Cup winners, came a sedate and soporific victory over Malta. Nobody will have had much trouble dozing off after events at the Ta’ Qali Stadium.
It would be hard to blame the Azzurri for that. An early penalty won by Stephan El Shaarawy and converted by Mario Balotelli gave them a quick cushion. They fluffed it up, made themselves comfortable and were rarely roused from their slumber afterwards.
That, of course, is a classic Italy against the lesser lights approach. It almost backfired when Gigi Buffon gave away a penalty – and a chance to equalise – but a strong save kept the lead intact. The crossbar did its bit too, thwarting a pretty sweet strike from Michael Mifsud.
Playing at something like half-pace, Cesare Prandelli’s men were sloppy for long spells of the first half and almost paid the price. A lack of concentration saw Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli play themselves into trouble on more than one occasion. The Nazionale composed only of Milan and Juventus players – Milentus, if you will – was singularly failing to enthuse.
Just when it looked like they might go into half-time with only a single-goal advantage, a lovely move along the Piedmont-Lombardy axis produced the game’s most exhilarating moment. Bonucci put Mattia De Sciglio clear and his cutback to Balotelli was thumped home in suitable style. It was a brief slap in the face of excitement before we could all drift off to dreamland once more.
The second half slipped away in traditional one-eye-on-the-weekend fashion. Prandelli tinkered with his formation, going from 4-3-1-2 to 4-3-3 once again, and introducing Antonio Candreva, Alessio Cerci and Alberto Gilardino to break the Rossonero-Bianconero hegemony. It did little to disrupt the air of ennui which had descended on the game.
In truth, it was hard to expect much more against a team which was happy enough to avoid heavy defeat. In addition, Italy have never been the kind of side to bother dishing out multi-goal humiliations. Those two ingredients rarely result in a game you’re likely to be told about on your Nonno’s knee.
“We knew we would get no space and we were a bit slow in our build-up,” admitted Prandelli. “We had the ball for most of the game but we lacked a bit of intensity up front. It was important to win and we did that alright. But we need to know that when we play teams which keep it tight we have to do things quicker.”
It would be only fair to judge the two yin and yang performances of the past few days as a pair. One produced a thrilling display, the other a much-needed result. Over the course of about 180 minutes of football, there was enough to be happy about.
Balotelli further underlined his importance to this team by becoming the top scorer of the Prandelli era. Cerci emerged as an option on the right of a three-man attack. And Buffon was, well, simply Buffon.
There was more good news from the other results in the group as Bulgaria and Denmark shared the points allowing the Azzurri to stretch three points clear at the top with a game in hand. A victory away to the Czech Republic in June could bring qualification to within touching distance. Italy have shown enough in the past week to suggest that is within their compass.
The bigger picture, of course, is whether or not they have the quality required to make an impact at the World Cup next year – if they make it. The verve, dash and resilience shown against Brazil seemed to suggest that they could, but the distracted and sometimes presumptuous approach in Malta hinted otherwise. But the gut-feeling remains that this team, like so many Italian sides, needs the adrenalin boost of serious competition in order to give of its best. They know there is no time for snoozing when a Mondiale comes around.