There is a curious kind of torture that football sometimes reserves for coaches who once played the game at the highest level. The sport can cruelly provide them with a squad of players which is crying out for the qualities their boss boasted back when they were still lacing up their boots. And how Roberto Mancini would love to give his Azzurri a little dose of one of his greatest gifts - composure.
Over three games in October, we got another illustration of the progress Italy have made under his management in terms of going out and imposing themselves on an opponent. In the key games with Poland and, to a lesser extent, against the Netherlands, they showed they were willing to take the initiative and try to grab a game by the throat. Unfortunately, when the chances came their way, they only had the coolness to convert a single one - and that was through midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini.
Let’s start, though, with the positive vibes that came across this trio of ties. We started off with a lovely little appetiser against Moldova. The run out for Italy’s second string delivered a feast of goals the likes of which the Azzurri rarely deliver. Among the highlights was a debut strike for Ciccio Caputo and the confirmation of a powerful squad to call on. It was pleasing, too, to see Stephan El Shaarawy perform so well on his return to the fold.
What that clash gave us was confirmation of the refreshing approach being demanded of this side. Even at 5-0 up, they were being told to drive forward in search of more goals and keep the pressure on the opposition. That attitude, in itself, is quite a transformation from the old rule of minimo sforzo - minimum effort - which used to govern such affairs.
The next course, it would only be fair to say, was a little less tasty. A stronger starting XI failed to break down Poland in a game which could have put them on track to top their Nations League group with ease. On the plus side was the way the defence handled one of the world’s best strikers in Robert Lewandowski and, on the whole, looked solid. But they were just too frantic for much of the match and when chances came their way they spurned them in alarming fashion - most notably through Federico Chiesa. Even the ever impeccable Mancio looked like he might pull out a clump of his classic coiffure in despair.
That set up the main dish in Bergamo - a mouthwatering match-up with Frank de Boer’s side - as the key encounter of the trio. Having beaten the Oranje in the away leg, there was cause for optimism and, after taking the lead through the aforementioned Pellegrini goal, they should have gone from strength to strength. Instead, they conceded quite quickly and seemed to lose a little of the assurance they had built up in previous outings. That a balanced affair ended in a draw seemed a pretty fair outcome.
It confirmed, once again, what a star Nicolò Barella has become for this team. His busy, buzzing attitude and ability with the ball at his feet have become central to all the good things this team can do. If the Inter man continues this development, he will be at the heart of the national side for years to come.
Defensively, it felt that conceding one goal across three games confirmed the strong platform being built at the back. Gigio Donnarumma can count on a sturdy shield in front of him no matter who is selected to play. It will no doubt face sterner tests if we ever get back to proper tournament football, but the signs are good.
In the centre of the pitch, too, it feels like the options are quite impressive. Pellegrini has joined Barella in becoming a major contributor while Jorginho - although a bit out of sorts in these games - and Marco Verratti remain integral parts of Italy’s operations. There are plenty of valid alternatives in the heart of the side, too.
It is up front, though, that the alarm bells continue to ring a little with nobody consistently turning control of a game into goals. Caputo did well against Moldova but it remains to be seen if he can click in bigger matches. Andrea Belotti was clearly picked for his endeavour against Poland but he failed to find the net. And Ciro Immobile, despite a Golden Shoe on the mantelpiece, remains something of an enigma for his country. It is impossible to argue with his club record but 10 goals in more than 40 appearances for the Azzurri is not a return worthy of his abilities. It might just be a question of needing something to click, but we have been waiting a while for that now.
Despite the frustration of back-to-back draws in their group games, Italy can still get to the top of their table. However, it has made the clash with Poland a key one in their pursuit of first place. That game is likely to be another intense affair where taking chances will be vital to making progress. His forwards could do worse than watch old videos of how Bobby Mancini used to take chances back in his Sampdoria days.
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