Thursday night's trip to Parma was always going to be an indicator as to whether Northern Ireland could still mix it with the best and put in a performance that could give everyone hope that World Cup qualification was a realistic aim.
Italy are the most in-form international team in the world and Northern Ireland have found wins really tough to come by over the last two years.
On paper it looked like a mismatch but my overriding feeling after the game was optimism due to the chances we created and the courage we showed in the second half in particular, yet I was also disappointed because of the avoidable goals we lost.
Football is won and lost in both 18-yard boxes and it's something Northern Ireland can't quite get the balance right with at the minute. It's hampering our chances of winning games.
Competing against the top nations is a tough enough task without giving them a helping hand and the second goal before half-time was a killer blow. There are a few things that will disappoint Ian Baraclough regarding the goal.
Firstly, the Italians are deadly on the counter-attack and the minute Jonny Evans stepped forward into midfield, alarm bells should have been going off for the players left behind him.
That's when communication is vital and the organisers within the team have to take over, making sure gaps are plugged and a quick transition counter is nullified. It wasn't and Italy got through the heart of the team too easily initially, but Craig Cathcart did well to usher Ciro Immobile into an area of the box that should have been a difficult angle to score from.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the case - Bailey Peacock-Farrell didn't react quickly enough and the ball went through him.
I understand in football everyone makes mistakes - I made more than my fair share. It's part and parcel of the game.
But the bigger picture regarding Peacock-Farrell, though, is his lack of regular competitive games at club level with Burnley and it's hindering him.
I believe he has a big choice to make in the summer for his own development as a goalkeeper. Recent high-profile misjudgments, and I'm including the goal conceded against Slovakia as it was savable for a goalkeeper of his undoubted ability, show there's no substitute for the cut and thrust of first-team football.
In such a specialist position it sharpens up every aspect of your game, from timing to anticipation. When you're not playing regularly you don't make errors so there's nothing to learn from, meaning your game can stagnate.
If you make a mistake in training, it's quickly forgotten. However, in competitive games it is analysed more and you come under the microscope.
Peacock-Farrell has way too much talent to be sitting idle every week and, knowing how footballers think, he won't want that to continue.
People will point to previous games when he's made big saves, in particular the Romania match in Bucharest, and I couldn't agree more, he was sensational. It just reinforces my point that his lack of regular meaningful games is the main reason for his inconsistencies.
The huge positive we can take from the game as a whole is the level of performance and chances created in the second half against a team many people are tipping to win Euro 2020.
What changed? The players were brave and as a team they played five yards further up the pitch and stopped the Italians at source.
In the first half Italy were allowed to build attacks freely and unopposed from Gianluigi Donnarumma but the second half was different. With the higher starting position, Northern Ireland forced Italy into uncharacteristic errors and built their attacks closer to the Italian goal.
It was clear the experienced quartet of Evans, Cathcart, Steven Davis and Stuart Dallas were instrumental in that mentality and tactical change, driving the team forward.
It would have been easy for the players to feel sorry for themselves at half-time and go through the motions in the second period but they didn't, which is very encouraging.
The Achilles heel of missing chances once again came back to bite Baraclough's men because if they'd taken one presented to them, it could have been all so different.
The one thing that Thursday night did reaffirm is we need two strikers on the pitch as it sees us carry much more of a threat. The all-important factor is they give us an out ball when we're under pressure and it keeps even the top teams honest defensively.
Now for the small issue of Wednesday night and a complete role reversal from the Italy game. It's simply a game we have to win against Bulgaria. It's a pivotal clash even this early in the qualification process, meaning it's win or bust. The Italians and Swiss are naturally the strongest teams in the group so we have to take maximum points from the Bulgarians and Lithuanians to give us any chance at all.
I expect us to be the aggressors and the players should be buoyed by large parts of the display on Thursday. Add in the finishing touch and that should be enough to gain three points and the dream is still alive.
BROWN WAS A TRUE CAPTAIN
The big news to come out of Scottish football in the last few days was the announcement that Celtic captain and serial winner Scott Brown would be leaving the club at the end of the season.
It brings to an end 14 trophy-laden years for Brown as he has decided to join Aberdeen in a player/coach role.
I don’t think people at Celtic will really appreciate Brown’s presence, leadership qualities and impact until he’s not there.
As captain of a club like Celtic, it demands more than just wearing the armband on a match day.
You have to set the standard every day in training, you have to demand of your team-mates on a daily basis and you are the epitome of what the club stands for.
Brown, without doubt, fulfilled those roles admirably.
As captain you are there to be shot at and people are gunning for you if or when it goes wrong. He took that challenge on at a reasonably young age at a huge club like Celtic and embraced it, sometimes sacrificing himself for the sake of the team.
That’s what a proper leader does and he will be a hard act to follow, of that there’s no doubt. I think it’s great he will still be playing in the Scottish Premiership which tells us he’s still got the fire in his belly for more success.
I certainly wouldn’t bet against it.