Italy made it three wins from four in World Cup qualifying to consolidate their place at the top of Group B. Luca Cetta looks back on a topsy-turvy 90 minutes in Milan.
As much as Cesare Prandelli looks to instil change in the Azzurri, some things stay the same. As is customary, Italy did not make things easy for themselves at a listless Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on Tuesday. They looked a rabble at the back early on, took the lead, gave Denmark a lifeline after the visitors reduced the deficit and eventually claimed a 3-1 win.
The victory leaves Prandelli’s men in a comfortable position after four matches. Crucially, Italy struck a blow to – on paper – their greatest group adversary. While the Azzurri sit pretty on 10 points, four ahead of Bulgaria, the 1992 European Champions have just two points from three matches.
Prandelli made a number of changes from the Armenia success last Friday, notably defensively. One was forced thanks to Gianluigi Buffon’s injury and his replacement Morgan De Sanctis was kept on his toes at the outset. Denmark repeatedly found gaps and sharper finishing would have put the Azzurri in a spot of bother.
Yet a five minute, two-goal salvo just past the half-hour turned the tide. Riccardo Montolivo and Daniele De Rossi gave Italy a scarcely deserved cushion. William Kvist lashed in a deadly volley right on half-time to give the visitors hope. Then seconds after the restart, Pablo Osvaldo was sent off. The straight red came after a flying arm hit Nicolai Stokholm. Harsh? Perhaps. But it will not sit well with Prandelli.
Cue Mario Balotelli. He looked threatening in patches before the interval but was impeccable after the sending off. Balotelli chased back, won the ball, held it up and earned free kicks. This in addition to the third goal. The Manchester City striker timed his foray into the Danish box perfectly, Andrea Pirlo’s pass was weighted to perfection and Balotelli got his boot to the ball ahead of Stephen Andersen. In his first appearance since the Euro 2012 Final, Balotelli gave one of his finest Azzurri performances. “Mario has to play like this, with this level of generosity. He has the talent,” said Prandelli afterwards.
Captain in place of Buffon, Pirlo led by example. His cross led to De Rossi’s header – the same combination and finish as in Yerevan – before his lofted pass for Balotelli helped settle the result. The 54th minute goal was ever so timely. It could have been a struggle in the second half without a two-goal lead to protect.
On that note, the defence improved after their early struggles. Denmark were frustrated by their inability to find space or a killer final ball. “I saw the spirit of a great team, as with 10 we fought in an organised and determined manner,” exclaimed a jubilant Prandelli. Nicklas Bendtner tussled with club teammates Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini but was busy committing fouls more than anything, while Christian Eriksen only showed glimpses of his talent. It meant De Sanctis had few dramas in the second half, while in possession Italy looked more capable with a man less than at the start.
All in all it equates to two wins from two in the latest round of qualifiers. Nonetheless, there were some areas of concern. The opening 20 minutes saw Italy lack intensity, just as they did for long spells of the Armenia clash and even versus Bulgaria. Prandelli will want to eradicate those sluggish patches which could prove costly in future matches. They cannot use the usual August/early September excuse of limited game-time and will need to pick up the intensity.The tactician admits they can improve.“Are we in Brazil? No. We are a little more relaxed, but still need to improve, as we saw tonight that when an opponent makes it a physical game then we struggle.”
The Azzurri next face Malta in March. After these dual wins, should Italy triumph as expected it will leave them in a fantastic position ahead to qualify from Group B. Brazil lurks ever closer for Prandelli and the squad.