For six second-half minutes, Italy were genuinely ruffled. Giorgio Chiellini’s unfortunate own goal had given Azerbaijan something to hold on to.
After going through the motions for two thirds of the contest, the Azzurri now had to play with urgency. The introduction of Sebastian Giovinco proved fundamental to this aim and the pint-sized forward duly delivered the match-winning cross for Chiellini to complete his hat-trick, of sorts, and spare Italian blushes.
“These are the typical games where you create so much, they defend and score at the first chance,” stated Coach Antonio Conte in his post-match interview.
“We need to be more clinical, more determined and we wasted too much tonight.”
The tactician’s assessment seems fair. Italy managed 22 attempts on goal, but scored just twice. Against sterner opposition, such carelessness could prove costly.
In recent years, Italy have developed a habit of just doing enough when faced with one of Europe’s perceived minnows. In qualifying for Euro 2012 and this summer’s World Cup, they beat Estonia, Faroe Islands and Malta by margins of just two goals or less. There was also a 1-1 with Luxembourg in June and a stalemate in Northern Ireland at the start of Cesare Prandelli’s reign.
Italy’s attitude in these matches is seemingly philosophical. With 2-0 worth them same as 6-0, why do more than is necessary? The Azzurri have not lost a qualifier since a 3-1 defeat to France in September 2006, so is it a cause for concern or simply a smart, calculated approach?
The results would suggest the latter, but Friday’s match did pose a more pertinent question that is relevant for the immediate future.
The forward combination of Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza endured a frustrating evening in Sicily. Between them, they had eight attempts on goal, but failed to register. Having combined so well against the Netherlands and Norway, their fruitless 90 minutes at the Renzo Barbera suggests they aren't untouchable.
Both Immobile and Zaza have had mixed starts to the new season domestically. With Giuseppe Rossi injured and Mario Balotelli finding his feet at Liverpool, the duo took advantage in Conte’s opening assignments to stake their claim.
Whether they are the long-term solution, however, remains to be seen. The wastefulness they demonstrated in front of goal is symbolic of their early season form. With Southampton’s Graziano Pellè the only Italian forward playing and scoring regularly, Conte is left short on options. The promise Immobile and Zaza showed in September gave him some reprieve, but can they be ruthless enough when it really matters?
Conte is unlikely to shelve them after one indifferent performance in a game where Italy largely coasted, but it hints at a problem that potentially could develop over time.
With Rossi at full fitness a luxury and Balotelli forever frustrating, Conte would be wise to test another combination either against Malta on Monday or in next month’s friendly at home to Albania. Pellè’s good form surely earns him a chance to show his worth, while Giovinco’s cameo in Palermo was a timely reminder of his ability to create and he would be a good foil for the Southampton target man.
With Conte’s first proper test coming in November against Croatia, the tactician will simply be pleased to be sitting on maximum points. The initial starting XI that opens a new era rarely finishes it and the next few fixtures should show where Conte’s current attacking choices stand for the longer term outlook.