If there is going to be a renaissance in Italian football, perhaps it was fitting that it should originate in Florence. After what have seemed like interminable Dark Ages for the Azzurri, they finally delivered a performance - and result - to provide hope of a brighter future. It was only right that it was Fiorentina full-back Cristiano Biraghi who popped up with a more-than-merited winning goal from a dominant display. That his celebrations honoured Davide Astori only added to the emotion of this late, late victory in Poland.
It is amazing the difference a goal makes, especially one which stubbornly refused to materialise in the previous 91 minutes or so. The play produced by Roberto Mancini’s side had been impressive and enterprising for the majority of this Nations League clash, but without finding the net it would have felt frustratingly incomplete. This result gives the team - and its CT - some precious breathing space.
As always on such occasions, you can make your own judgments about where Italy’s merits end and Poland’s shortcomings begin. The hosts continued the underwhelming football it produced at this summer’s World Cup, despite possessing a more than respectable squad of players. Their visitors - with the neat inter-passing of Jorginho, Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne and the rest - looked streets ahead of their recent performances.
And what to say of Nicolo Barella, a boy who looks born to play in the blue of his country? Mancio has chopped and changed his midfield, with the likes of Roberto Gagliardini and Lorenzo Pellegrini getting their chance, but the Cagliari youngster has seized his opportunity. Little wonder it has sparked the inevitable talk of a big-money transfer to the Premier League. Cue the Roll Out Barella headlines in due course.
This was Italy’s answer to ‘tiki-taka’ for spells of this game with the same infuriating - at times anyway - reluctance to stick the ball in the net. A front line of Insigne and the two Federicos - Bernardeschi and Chiesa - guarantees movement, trickery and skill but, unfortunately, not goals. The number of chances spurned - not only by the attack but by the whole team - was starting to get worryingly high. before Biraghi finally broke the deadlock. There was always the danger that Gianluigi Donnarumma might get caught on by one of the very rare Polish breaks.
It would be foolish to think that - on the back of a decent start to their Ukraine friendly and a last-gasp victory here - all the Azzurri’s troubles are over. Mancini himself was quick to point out as much in his post-match interviews and recognise there was still work to do. Nonetheless, his passionate celebration of the winning goal underlined just how important he knew these three points were. There is still an improbable outside chance of winning the group but, at least, the ghost of relegation has been sent packing.
This first competitive win in what has felt like a lifetime was a vital tonic, even if it should not disguise the hard graft that lies ahead. At last we saw Italy go out and boss a game, play nice football and create chances with a new generation of players. All is not perfect yet, just as all hope was not lost before but the future definitely looks brighter. The team finally showed an identity, character and delivered a result. It’s still only a small step but - given what has gone before - any progress feels like a giant stride.
We had almost forgotten what nights like this feel like. Let’s savour it and hope there are more to come against tougher opposition in the games ahead.