Italy friendlies should come with a health warning because they can seriously damage your faith in the Azzurri. Even the most incorrigible optimist would find it hard to be upbeat after most of their international Amichevoli. And they left it until injury time to give fans anything to smile about in Amsterdam.
For about 80 minutes, the boys in blue were going through the motions. Lacklustre and lackadaisical were two of the kinder adjectives to describe their performance. It took a string of fine saves from Gigi Buffon to avoid slipping further than a single goal behind to a strike by Jeremain Lens which had more than a hint of handball in its build-up.
But that potential infringement felt like clutching at straws for most of the game. The Italians were second best for long spells and only the odd incursion by Ignazio Abate or flash of brilliance from Stephan El Shaarawy lit things up. Other than that, the match seemed to be sliding away from them on the slippery surface in the Amsterdam Arena.
The team looked hesitant and disinterested and struggled to come to terms with the 4-3-3 formation it attempted at the outset. Cesare Prandelli said it was a tactical approach they would need to work on. Some might prefer to see it consigned to history.
A quality midfield of Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo never took off. That meant Il Faraone and Mario Balotelli had little service to feed off. It allowed Holland to prosper and, until the very closing stages, look more like extending their lead than conceding an equaliser.
But a late shuffle, and a switch to 4-3-1-2, provided 10 minutes of promise. Pablo Daniel Osvaldo and Alberto Gilardino – two men Prandelli worked with at club level at Fiorentina – produced more than the crest-sporting juniors they replaced. Alessandro Diamanti slotted in better behind that front two than he had playing wide on the right. They actually started creating chances.
It looked to have all been in vain until the very last moments of the match. Marco Verratti – who had come on to replace De Rossi – had got more and more into the game until he finally broke into the box. Feeding off a Gilardino knockdown, he held off his man to scoop home a sweet finish over Tim Krul.
The goal gave a better sheen to a performance which had been pretty miserable up to that point. It broke a rotten run of friendly defeats and, for that, it has to be welcomed. But the bright spots were few and far between.
They were the saves of Buffon, the character and determination shown to claw their way back into the game and Verratti’s beaming smile when he scored his goal. It’s not a lot, but Italy have never shown much in their friendlies and we should all be used to that by now. We can only hope that the last 10 minutes or so in Amsterdam were a taste of what we can expect to see when the chips are really down.
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