Mario Balotelli marked his Italy comeback after four years with a goal, as Roberto Mancini’s Azzurri debut was a 2-1 friendly win over Saudi Arabia.
This was the debut for new Coach Mancini, as Saudi Arabia booked their spot in the 2018 World Cup, but Italy missed out for the first time since 1958. Balotelli and Domenico Criscito were given their first Azzurri appearances since 2014 in a 4-3-3 formation with Matteo Politano of Sassuolo making his debut.
Balotelli had the ball in the net within 90 seconds, but only after Lorenzo Insigne had been flagged offside. It was a lively start, as Balo’s header glanced wide from a Leonardo Bonucci cross, then his through ball sent Alessandro Florenzi clear only to be blocked off in the six-yard box.
After a series of corners, Lorenzo Pellegrini’s header whistled just past the post and Bonucci, but inevitably the deadlock was broken by SuperMario.
He dribbled at defenders, cut on to his right foot and smashed it low into the near bottom corner from just outside the box. It was a perfect way to mark his comeback after four years in the Azzurri wilderness, his 14th goal in 34 caps.
Alessio Romagnoli’s bicycle kick flashed just wide, but another returning figure Domenico Criscito smashed his strike off the underside of the crossbar.
Lorenzo Pellegrini should’ve made it 2-0 after the break, but he came sliding in only to turn over from close range on a perfect Davide Zappacosta cross.
Balotelli went off as a precaution following a muscular twinge and replacement Andrea Belotti sprung the offside trap to be stopped by a last-ditch tackle.
The Torino forward did double Italy’s lead eventually, as on a corner his header was parried and he turned in the rebound too. It was the first time Italy have scored more than one goal since a 5-0 World Cup qualifier against Liechtenstein in June 2017, managing a total of four goals in the next eight matches.
Insigne nearly scored one of his trademark right-foot curlers, beaten out of the far top corner by Al-Owais, but a double howler allowed Saudi Arabia to get one back.
Zappacosta was caught in possession in the centre-circle, sparking a counter-attack with Gianluigi Donnarumma sprinting into midfield, allowing Al Shehri – who was marginally offside – to deposit into an empty net.
Saudi Arabia nearly equalised soon after a Criscito error, but this time Donnarumma stuck out a trailing leg to deny Al Muwallad. In stoppages, Bryan Cristante saw his shot practically cleared off the line by a desperate defensive block.
Italy 2-1 Saudi Arabia
Balotelli 20 (I), Belotti 69 (I), Alshehri 72 (S)
Italy: Donnarumma; Zappacosta, Bonucci, Romagnoli, Criscito (De Sciglio 88); Florenzi (Bonaventura 67), Jorginho, Pellegrini (Verdi 73); Politano (Cristante 73), Balotelli (Belotti 58), Insigne (Chiesa 83)
Saudi Arabia: Al-Owais; Al-Harbi, O Hawsawi (Al Bulaihi 26), Othman (M Hawsawi 93), Alfaraj, Alshehri, Alshahrani, Otayf, Aljassam, Kanoo (Al Dawasari 46), Abu Radiyah (Al Muwallad 70)
Ref: Scharer (SWI)