As nights of celebration go it was a one-sided affair. It was the land of Pope Francis’ birth which had much more to savour than that of his ancestors. To assess Italy’s display in terms of theological virtues there was a lack of faith, precious little hope – and a lot of defensive charity.
We have come to expect such performances, of course, in the Azzurri’s early season appointments. They rarely give their best in the opening stages of any football year. Like your dad’s old Morris Minor with its starting handle, they take a little longer to truly splutter into life.
For much of the match, this was typically lackadaisical Italian stuff. They were ineffective in attack, overrun in midfield and sloppy in defence. It might only have been a sparring match, but it was easy enough to tell who packed the more power in their punches.
So it came as no surprise when the visitors took the lead nor who scored the goal. Napoli’s Argentinian employees have caused La Nazionale plenty of trouble in the past and Gonzalo Higuain pounced in impressive style. On this evidence, fans of the Partenopei need not fret too much about Edinson Cavani’s departure.
A goal which should have brought Cesare Prandelli’s men to life singularly failed to rouse them from their slumber. Instead, they slipped further behind to a sweet Ever Banega strike in the second half. And still it would take another 15 minutes or so and a string of changes to see any alteration in their attitude.
The final quarter of the match gave the only glimmer of light. Alessandro Diamanti glinted under the floodlights, Lorenzo Insigne produced a laser-guided goal and finally there was a bit of brightness about Italy’s play. It was all too little and too late to trouble as expert a side as Argentina, but it did at least lift the darkness which had threatened to engulf their entire performance.
But the final whistle undoubtedly brought with it more negative than positive reflections. Pablo Osvaldo proved a poor stand-in for Mario Balotelli, Marco Verratti needs more time to grow into the Andrea Pirlo role and the whole defence struggled to cope with the Albiceleste’s undeniably classy performers. If you were harbouring hopes of seeing Gigi Buffon lift the World Cup next summer, this was a pretty brusque dismissal of such dreams.
The only thing which might keep those aspirations alive was the spirit shown in the closing stages of this Roman clash. When Italy went a bit more gung-ho they were able to rattle Alejandro Sabella’s side. That attitude – like the upturned hull of a boat in stormy seas – is something for Azzurri fans to cling onto.
Prandelli’s men will hope to show, as they have so often in the past, that when the matches really matter they can raise their game. And they will get a chance to do so pretty soon with vital qualifying games against Bulgaria and the Czech Republic on the horizon. They will aim to show that the approach displayed in the final moments of the Argentina game can be seen for an entire 90 minutes. Otherwise, the Pope might have just one team to support in Brazil next summer.