Another Italy game, another draw and another comeback required. Anybody would be forgiven for thinking the visit to Naples was the latest episode of the Mario Balotelli Show given the coverage he received leading up to the contest. From camera crews to the Camorra and tweets along the way, Balo was again the centre of attention. Amid it all was the World Cup qualifier with Armenia.
Not that the Azzurri seemed to get the memo early. Cesare Prandelli called the opening 20 minutes embarrassing. Yura Movsisyan pounced on a sixth minute error from Alberto Aquilani to open the scoring. An already shaky makeshift defence took little time to crack. The boys in blue couldn’t string three passes together.
In typical Italian fashion having already sealed qualification meant taking the foot off the pedal, but there was still something to play for. Aside from protecting an unbeaten run in World Cup and European Championships qualifying stretching back to September 2006, there was the small matter of World Cup seedings.
A win either against Denmark or Armenia would seal a top eight seeding and less potential for a Group of Death scenario. However, in two matches the Catenaccio gods would have been appalled with, Italy conceded four avoidable goals.
At the Stadio San Paolo, Aquilani’s mistake was compounded by Federico Marchetti in the second half. He fumbled the ball behind for a corner, then, echoing Walter Zenga at the same end 23 years earlier, came for a cross but was not close. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s header struck the underside of the bar and crossed the line. Italy left their fate in other hands. Switzerland’s win aided their top eight push. Colombia and Uruguay’s final qualifiers would decide the rankings.
If the performance was disjointed, a look at the starting XI reveals why. It was a side filled with reserves. Prandelli was not too worried about the seeding situation, rather he concentrated on giving these players one last test in a competitive environment pre-Brazil. A number of regulars were absent, while the match showed the defensive stocks are low on depth. Nonetheless, the tactician was pleased with the spirit shown in erasing two deficits.
The match also glimpsed Italy’s future. Two wingers continued to stake their claim for a plane ticket across the Atlantic with fine performances. Lorenzo Insigne sparkled on home soil. After Fabio Cannavaro, Ciro Ferrara and Antonio Juliano, he was the fourth Neapolitan to represent his country at the fabled venue and if not for the post, would have been the first to score. Alessandro Florenzi netted a first Azzurri goal from Insigne’s cross and is really taking to his new position wide on the right, giving Prandelli another option.
Balotelli put aside the controversy and his weekend illness to make a substitute appearance. He rescued Italy with the second goal, hooking Andrea Pirlo’s pass into the far corner. Super Mario was in one of those moods and very nearly won it late on. Then there’s Giuseppe Rossi, who began the latest chapter to his Azzurri adventure following a two year absence. Rossi’s last game was on 7 October 2011, in Serbia. “It was a huge emotion to wear the Nazionale jersey again, be on the field with the lads and moving the ball around,” he said.
These players are the future, but the future is now, on the road to Brazil. The quartet will surely – barring injury – be heading to Brazil. Prandelli has already conceded he couldn’t conceive of a World Cup squad lacking Balotelli.
So what to take from the match? For long stretches it looked the classic nothing-on-the-line Italy match. The Azzurri lacked urgency and fluency. Yes, they twice responded to falling behind, but with the added carrot of top seeding up for grabs they failed to achieve their goal. Colombia and Uruguay’s wins ensure it’s the first time since 1978 that Italy are not top seeds. On the flipside, players such as Insigne and Florenzi highlighted what there is to look forward to in the upcoming months.