As challenges go, this was like graduating from dipping your toes in the kiddies’ pool to swimming with sharks. With the greatest of respect to Saudi Arabia, their ambitions at the upcoming World Cup are a lot less lofty than those of France. Yet the Azzurri went toe-to-toe with one of the would-be winners of that competition and just about came out alive.
Make no mistake, there was a gulf in class that was evident, but that was always likely with the young and inexperienced line-up Roberto Mancini selected. The power of Didier Deschamps’ side - particularly in their searing counter-attacks - was terrifying at times. But every judgment must be measured against the depths to which the Italian national team had sunk. Even one small step towards the level of their opponents would feel like a giant leap right now.
No defeat is ever pleasant, of course, but it is surely better to throw fresher faces into the mix right now and test their abilities. The new boss showed he was willing to take that risk and he got a mixed bag of answers. Some of the next generation looked ready for the fight, others perhaps need a few more rounds of sparring.
Firmly in the promoted section was Fiorentina’s Federico Chiesa. He crackled with energy and enterprise throughout the game and demonstrated that he was willing to show no respect for the reputations of his more illustrious opponents. It is an attitude that needs to be transmitted throughout the team if they hope to rise up the global game again, but the Viola man already possesses it in abundance. He might not have guaranteed himself a starting spot in this new Nazionale, but he certainly has to be one of the first names in the squad for the foreseeable future.
Mattia Caldara also seemed to confirm his good form with Atalanta in a decent pairing with skipper Leo Bonucci. With Alessio Romagnoli also coming along nicely - as he showed against Saudi Arabia - the central defensive positions look pretty well covered. It is a shame the same could not be said on the flanks.
That is where - to these weary old football-watcher’s eyes anyway - the biggest alarm bells have been ringing over the past few days. None of the options explored at right and left back looked particularly convincing. Be it Mattia De Sciglio, Davide Zappacosta, Mimmo Criscito or Danilo D’Ambrosio, they all showed their shortcomings. The first two, at least, have age on their side, but none looked all that promising as a long-term option. Some might be tempted to hurry Davide Calabria along at Milan or stick with the tried and tested Alessandro Florenzi going forward.
It was a tough shift on Friday night too for the other new boys. Domenico Berardi showed odd flashes while Rolando Mandragora drew the short straw of trying to handle one of the best midfields in the world right now. Along with the also relatively untested Lorenzo Pellegrini they got over-run at times, but stuck to their task. You got the feeling, at least, that their time might come - even if it might not be right now.
And what about the recently returned to the fold Super Mario? Well, he did play a part in the Italy goal with a powerful free-kick that Hugo Lloris could only parry out to the waiting Bonucci. If you combine that with the strike he delivered against Saudi Arabia, he has already more than justified his call-up from Mancini and made many question why he was left out in the cold quite so long.
It also sends a message out to the bozos with banners who seem to like to follow him around and question his credentials to play for his country. The Azzurri - like Les Bleus - should be an inclusive outfit, not throw up barriers through ignorance or prejudice.
Moral lessons aside, this was a steep learning curve for Italy which is likely to continue for some time to come. New faces will rise and fall and some more established performers will return. The new Coach said he did not have a magic wand to fix things overnight and that much was evident in his second outing in Nice.
The doubters can dwell in gloom and talk of terminal decline but - to my mind anyway - it is too early, and frankly unproductive, to go down that road. There were enough splinters of hope in this performance for us to cling on to and hope to survive and rebuild. There will be choppy seas ahead, for sure, but at least the sun is on the horizon and we appear to be heading in a better direction.
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