Italy are a shadow of team they once were
Four points from two games. Nigel Worthington would have settled for that. Let’s face it, we all would.
It’s been a fantastic start to the 2012 European Championship qualifiers for Northern Ireland.
A win in Slovenia, followed by last night’s hard fought draw against Italy at Windsor Park.
Sure Worthington’s side have ridden their luck over the course of the last 180 minutes and largely been outplayed in both matches, but they remain undefeated, without a goal conceded by the ever reliable goalkeeper Maik Taylor and his resolute defenders.
Results are everything in this game and, to date, Northern Ireland have delivered brilliantly on that front.
With the trip to the Faroe Islands to come on Tuesday, things are set to get even better.
The mood amongst the fans is now one of optimism, replacing the doom and gloom that had been around just before the start of the campaign.
The Green and White Army, who produced another electric atmosphere, are realistic enough to know they shouldn’t be booking flights to Poland and Ukraine just yet, but there is genuine hope that their heroes can compete in this group.
Serbia’s home defeat last night to Estonia shows just how open it is going to be.
Italy may be favourites to finish top, but they will lose games, make no mistake about that.
In my book they have only one truly world class player. He showed it last night.
Andrea Pirlo ran the show from midfield. It’s no wonder he is known as ‘l’architetto’ (the architect) amongst his team-mates because he creates everything for them.
Pirlo, of course, was instrumental in Italy’s World Cup success in 2006.
In South Africa this summer he missed his country’s first two group games through injury and although he came on as a substitute in the third match, it was
too little too late, with the Azzurri embarrassingly eliminated before the knockout stages.
The Italians must be overjoyed that the AC Milan star is back because he brings so much class to their side.
He was spraying the ball all over the place at Windsor Park. Fortunately for Northern Ireland no one was on the same wavelength as the 31-year-old, otherwise the Italians would have coasted to victory.
Too often after Pirlo’s promptings they found themselves in dangerous positions only to waste them. They only really forced two notable saves from Taylor, which underlined just how ineffective they were in front of goal.
The Northern Ireland defence played a part in that too. Stephen Craigan and Aaron Hughes remain an excellent partnership and alongside full-backs Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans they can be content with another good night’s work in the green shirt.
Down the years Italian teams have been built on a strong defence. Names like Gentile, Baresi, Maldini and Cannavaro roll off the tongue.
The current crop aren’t a patch on that lot, looking decid
edly nervy when faced with a cross of high quality.
One arrived just after the half hour mark, which should have been the signal for Northern Ireland to take the lead.
Record goalscorer David Healy has stunned Windsor Park on many an occasion with his heroics. He did it again last night, though not in a fashion he will recall with relish.
With the Italian rearguard all over the place, Chris Brunt pro
duced the most inviting delivery only for Healy to head wide from six yards out. He couldn’t believe it, his team-mates couldn’t believe it and the Northern Ireland supporters were left rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
Had that gone in another famous victory could have been on the cards.
I still believe Healy has much to offer his country and wouldn’t back against him scoring against the Faroe Islands, but he’ll do well to start on Tuesday because the man who replaced him as substitute, Kyle Lafferty, was lively.
Apart from Healy’s miss, the impressive Steve Davis went closest for the home side late on when perhaps he could have done better, and there was one decent penalty shout for handball in the Italian box, but Worthington won’t worry too much about that. He got the tactics right once again and the result was a good one for Northern Ireland.
Beating the Faroes will make it even better.