The last time Northern Ireland kept a clean sheet was at home to Netherlands in November 2019 when no one had ever heard of Covid. Our lives had not been taken over by lockdowns, zoom meetings and home schooling and wearing masks was for Batman, not me and you going into shops.
Stopping a quality Italy side from scoring in the opening World Cup qualifier was always going to be a tough task but when you gift goals like Ian Baraclough’s side did in Parma, that’s simply not good enough at this level.
For all of Northern Ireland’s attacking endeavours in the second half when driven on by captain Steven Davis - they showed adventure and ambition - the damage had been done before the break, conceding goals that should have been avoided.
Worryingly it has become a theme. Think back to the play-off decider defeat at home to Slovakia last year when defensive errors and goalkeeping frailty cost the team a place at this summer’s Euro finals.
Italy are a far better team than Slovakia but were helped the same way in their 2-0 victory. It is an issue that needs addressed quickly and preferably by the time Bulgaria are in Belfast for the second Group C clash next Wednesday.
Failure at Windsor Park then and qualification for Qatar 2022 will take some doing in the remaining six fixtures.
After a bright start for the visitors with Gavin Whyte posing a threat in attack, Roberto Mancini’s men broke the deadlock 14 minutes in when Northern Ireland’s defence took social distancing to new limits and allowed Domenico Berardi the freedom of the park racing in behind down the right and cutting inside unchallenged to fire a ripper past Bailey Peacock Farrell at his near post.
Goalkeepers hate being beaten in that area but with the power of the shot and no protection from his back five, there were excuses for the Burnley man.
There were none whatsoever for Italy’s second strike though, which effectively sealed the points for the Azzurri. After Jonny Evans had raided forward and Michael Smith’s poor cross was dealt with, the transition from Mancini’s men was sharp leaving Ciro Immobile racing into the left hand side of the penalty area with Craig Cathcart in pursuit. The Watford defender contained the opposition striker who opted to shoot towards the near post. Peacock-Farrell ought to have saved comfortably but the ball evaded him and ended up in the net. Shocker. Game over.
Italy have never lost a World Cup qualifier at home and as they walked into the dressing room at half-time they knew it wasn’t going to happen here.
Yes, Northern Ireland had a real go in the second period and carved out chances that with a clinical edge would have been converted but truth be told by then the Italians had taken the foot off the Ferrari. You got the feeling they could have gone through the gears if need be.
Still, credit where credit is due and for Northern Ireland to create so many openings against a side that only let in four goals in 10 Euro 2020 qualifying wins out of 10 it tells you they refused to allow their heads to go down. Put it this way; Juventus legends Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, winning his 100th cap, have had more comfortable nights.
On another evening, Whyte, Smith and Paddy McNair could have found the net. Hopefully those types of opportunities will be taken against Bulgaria.
The team for that will be intriguing. Baraclough will make a host of changes for Sunday’s friendly at Windsor Park against USA but what will he do for the fixture with vital points at stake? In Parma he went with a 3-5-2 which for most of the first half when Italy dominated was 5-3-2 with Smith and Stuart Dallas as wing blacks flanking Evans, Cathcart and McNair.
For Baraclough it was a case of tried and trusted with a twist of youthful exuberance in the shape of 21-year-old Ali McCann in midfield alongside the ever reliable Davis who proudly led out the team for his 125th international appearance, joining Peter Shilton as the most capped British player in history.
Given that Davis has seen the good, the bad and the ugly with Northern Ireland, perhaps it was fitting that he was in the homeland of the spaghetti western at the start of his fifth World Cup qualifying campaign. Also in midfield was Corry Evans, who after limited game time lately found the going tough and was replaced at the break. Josh Magennis and Whyte were employed up front with the latter bright in a second that half offered hope for the rest of the campaign.
If Northern Ireland keep shipping poor goals, however, that will soon run out.