Italy 3 Northern Ireland 0: So, Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen was actually right back in 1995. You really can’t win anything with kids.
Outgoing Northern Ireland boss Nigel Worthington, in his final game of his four-and-a-half year reign, never stood a chance of causing a shock result here in Pescara last night with 10 initial squad members ruled out through either injury or suspension.
And not with six of Northern Ireland’s starting 11 jus t 22 years old or younger performing against players from world famous clubs such as Juventus, Roma, Parma, Fiorentina and AC Milan.
Where did our boys come from last night? Andy Little (Port Vale), Oliver Norwood (Scunthorpe), Ryan McGivern (Bristol City), Lee Hodson (Watford), Corry Evans (Hull) and Johnny Gorman (Wolves reserves) while goalkeeper Maik Taylor, who was making his 88th and final appearance, doesn’t even have a club at present.
It was a total mismatch as a double from AC Milan’s Antonio Cassano along with a shocking own goal from Gareth McAuley gave the Italians, who qualified for the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine next summer with ease as Group C winners, a comfortable win. Northern Ireland, even though they were in a great position to finish second, must be content with fifth.
Northern Ireland, cheered on by 600 loyal fans, employed a five-man midfield with Corry Evans playing in the hole just in front of the back four to try to stifle the Italians. That left David Healy, looking for his first international goal in 23 games and making his 91st appearance, to go level with second-placed Mal Donaghy caps table, up front on his own.
The Italians controlled much of the play from outset and it seemed they were just toying with us with their slick passing and accurate long balls across the pitch but we did manage win two corners inside the opening 13 minutes. Unfortunately they came to nothing.
Northern Ireland survived a scare in the 19th minute, when a corner from little Sebastian Giovinco, making his first start for his country, evaded everyone in the six-yard box apart from defender Giorgio Chiellini racing in at the back post who someone managed to glance his header wide with the goal gaping.
Two minutes later though Italy took a lead they had threatened from the first whistle after wasting so many efforts.
Roma’s Daniele De Rossi played a delightful ball into the path of Antonio Cassano, and with acres of space in the 18-yard box, the striker directed his half-volley low past Taylor. The stadium erupted but Northern Ireland weren’t prepared to sit back and allow the Italians to steamroller all over them. Italy’s one-touch play at times was magical, always building from the back and Cassano, Andrea Pirlo and De Rossi were putting on a highlight reel with their backheels and deft touches.
The Italians, just before half-time, appealed for a penalty after Mattia Cassani went down in the box but it was only after a fantastic last-ditch challenge from McGivern and the Spanish referee quite rightly waved on play.
Former Liverpool flop Alberto Aquilani and Montolivo both had long-range efforts that didn’t trouble Taylor at the start of the second half but the Northern Ireland captain was soon picking the ball out of the net again.
Aquilani, now with Milan, played a wonderful defence-splitting ball through to Cassano that caught out Gareth McAuley and McGivern. This allowed the talented Roma striker time to compose himself before drilling the ball low and hard past Taylor.
Cassano, to a standing ovation, was replaced by Pablo Daniel Osvaldo – the Argentina-born striker making his debut for his adopted country.
Taylor made a great diving save from a long-range Montolivo effort on 73 minutes but couldn’t stop McAuley a minute later diverting the ball into his own net after a terrible mix-up.
Andrea Pirlo chipped it to Federico Balzaretto who played it across goal and McAuley, trying to defend his lines, could only turn his body, and despite two attempts at clearing the ball, helped the ball past Taylor.
It was a sad but totally expected conclusion to Worthington’s tenure as Northern Ireland manager.
So, it’s arrivederci, Nigel Worthington and bon giorno to the next manager charged with turning around Northern Ireland’s fortunes.
And on this evidence, you’ve got an almighty job on your hands.