A brave, bold and battling second half performance from Northern Ireland in Parma last night was unable to eradicate first half errors which ultimately cost Ian Baraclough's men dear.
Northern Ireland showed plenty of heart and desire inside the empty Stadio Ennio Tardini during their opening World Cup qualifier against Italy but they were always fighting an uphill battle against one of the top sides in the world following a first-half disaster.
The men in white were caught out by Domenico Berardi's opener on 14 minutes and then, with six minutes remaining in the first half, keeper Bailey Peacock Farrell allowed a strongly struck shot from Ciro Immobile to beat him at the near post.
Northern Ireland were always going to be up against it with Italy having never been beaten at home in a World Cup qualifier and going into the match on a 22-game unbeaten run, but the manner in which they conceded those first half goals will sting Baraclough and his players.
Certainly their second half display was much improved, they pegged back the Italians and for large periods it epitomised the performance of Steven Davis, who was equalling the British appearances record by winning his 125th cap last night.
With Newcastle United left back Jamal Lewis out injured with a groin issue, Barcalough decided to move Stuart Dallas over to left back and Hearts full back Michael Smith came in on the right.
Paddy McNair joined Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart in a back three while Corry Evans, having returned from long-term injury, took up his usual position in the holding midfield role. St Johnstone's Ali McCann won his third cap alongside skipper Davis.
In attack, an all-Hull City strikeforce of Josh Magennis and Gavin Whyte from England's League One took on the vastly experienced Serie A centre halfs, Juventus stars Leonardo Bonucci, making his 100th appearance, and Giorgio Chiellini.
Boss Roberto Mancini, having won 10 out of 10 in Euro qualifying, opted for the lethal firepower of Berardi, Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne, however Chelsea midfielder Jorginho was out injured.
Northern Ireland were determined and direct from the start with Whyte winning a corner with some nice trickery, a few dangerous long throws from Smith, and Magennis using his physical presence against Bonucci and Chiellini. But that was about the height of Northern Ireland's first-half attacking threat.
After Alessandro Florenzo had caught out Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart with a beautifully weighted cross on 11 minutes which Immobile failed to execute, the Paris St Germain right back was soon back on the attack playing in Berardi.
With the ball having dissected McNair and Dallas, Berardi, keen to keep the ball on his left foot, raced towards goal on 14 minutes and then hammered it into the roof of the net with Bailey Peacock Farrell having gone to ground.
Northern Ireland were bitterly disappointed to be caught out by Florenzo's excellent through ball while Peacock Farrell, if he had stood tall, could have possibly blocked the effort, although it was hit with some velocity.
The defensive three after the early set back were proving to be much more solid as the game progressed, McCann was tackling hard in midfield and the front pairing were coming deep to try and disrupt the Italian play. But Italy's slick passing, touch and movement were causing Northern Ireland problems.
On a rare attack, Jonny Evans burst forward on 39 minutes through the Italian half and gave Smith the opportunity to whip the ball into the box. But the cross was too close to AC Milan keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma who, with a kick release, turned Italy's rearguard action into attack with Evans desperately trying to get back. Lorenzo Insigne on the half way line played in Immobile down the left who raced forward and unleashed a shot which inexplicably beat Peacock Farrell at his near post. A huge error by the Burnley keeper, akin to the mistake he made in extra time last November to gift Slovakia their ticket to the Euro finals.
While Italy were the dominating force throughout the first- half after conceding the early goal, Northern Ireland were largely defending their line well. Conceding the second goal was a crushing blow for Baraclough and his men.
Corry Evans made way for George Saville at half-time and after Gavin Whyte volleyed wide from a rare Northern Ireland attack, the Middlesbrough midfielder was booked inside two minutes of being on the pitch for an aerial challenge on Florenzi.
Berardi should have scored his second and Italy's third when Smith failed to cover his man at the back post and the Italian superstar headed surprisingly wide.
Complacency nearly cost Italy on 56 minutes when the architect of the Azzuri's attacks, Manuel Locatelli, attempted to pass the ball back to his keeper after being played the ball by Donnarumma. Whyte was quick to sneak in but the Hull forward couldn't divert the ball past Donnarumma's leg, Northern Ireland were straight on to the loose ball, Smith was found at the back post but he could only direct his effort straight at the highly rated AC Milan shot stopper.
Northern Ireland were now playing with a fluency which had been captivating under Michael O'Neill but largely missing under Baraclough regime. It was great to see it back and it appeared Italy were surprisingly caught out by Northern Ireland deciding to play further up the pitch.
However, the contrast between the two teams was evident on 63 minutes when Italy brought on one of the finest players in Serie A, Inter Milan midfeilder Nicolo Barella and Northern Ireland called upon the leading striker in the Irish League, Linfield's Shane Lavery for Whyte.
Yet after Insigne struck a curling shot high and wide, it was Lavery who was making more of an impact holding the ball up well as Northern Ireland pushed forward at every opportunity.
The men in white were suddenly stroking the ball around, enjoying possession much to the , frustration of the Azzuri and they were creating chances. Not clear cut but certainly forcing the Italians on the back foot.
Having roamed forward, it was centre back Jonny Evans who put in a tantalising cross which Magennis just couldn't get a touch on and Donnarumma was forced into a dramatic save.
Dallas and Saville then combined well, winning the ball in a tough challenge, however the Boro man took a heavy touch in the box and Italy were able to throw a body in the way of his shot.
Italian boss Mancini, looking to ignite his Azzurri side again, felt compelled to make a double substitution on 74 minutes taking off Berardi, who was ineffective in the second half, amd bringing on the dangerous Juventus ace Federico Chiesa along with Leonardo Spinazzola for Chelsea's Emerson.
Following the introduction of Jordan Thompson and Kyle Lafferty for McCann and Mageniss with 12 minutes remaining, the momentum surprisingly remained with Northern Ireland. Davis, on his big night, came close to scoring his 13th international goal with a volley which Donnarumma was equal to and then with Italy have made yet another double substitution with dangerman Insigne taken out of the contest, the Rangers midfielder with a precision pass in the box set up on the onrushing Paddy McNair who could only blast the ball over the bar.
In the dying seconds Immobile, having been fed through, tried to take the ball around Peacock Farrell but this time Burnley keeper would not be beaten from an acute angle.
Northern Ireland's fighting spirit continued to the death, Italy were definitely unsettled and sub Thompson picked up a rather unnecessary booking just as Turkish referee Ali Palabiyik was about to blow for full time.
It's yet another story of what might have been for Baraclough's men.
Plenty of second half endeavour, tenacity and desire but unfortunately no reward for their pressure.
However if they are able to reproduce that second half showing throughout next Wednesday's second World Cup qualifier against Bulgaria at Windsor Park, the goals will surely come.
Ultimately though, it's the self inflicted errors which are hurting Northern Ireland most.