Italy 3-1 Belgium (Internat’l Friendly): Di Natale’s A-Rockin’, Italy’s A-Poppin’

Italy FA (Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio)KBVB/URBSFA: Koninklijke Belgische Voetbalbond, Union Royale Belge des Societes de Football Association

Ya, corny title but it summarizes the Azzurri’s current match form pretty well. Ok ok Belgium aren’t exactly living up to their Diables Rouges title lately, and the RAI commentators themselves repeatedly defined them as nothing more than a “sparring partner” for Italy. Still, there’s something very reassuring about the way Donadoni’s team handled the first 60 minutes of Friday’s friendly: less than two weeks before their Euro 2008 debut Cannavaro’s still rock-solid, Di Natale’s in great form, Del Piero and Cassano have plenty to say, and the Azzurri’s 4-3-3 formation is a well-oiled machine.

With 10 days left till the opening match vs. Holland, Friday’s test was very important for Roberto Donadoni, and despite all the rumours surrounding Del Piero’s & Cassano’s simultaneous utilization, the Don stuck to his trademarked and tested 4-3-3 formation, with Luca Toni up front surrounded by Antonio Di Natale and Mauro Camoranesi on the wings. At the end of the day and based on Italy’s performance Friday, no choice could have been more spot on. Compared to pre-match expectations however, two changes saw the day in the Azzurri line-up: Christian Panucci was given a start over Fabio Grosso as right-back (thus moving Zambrotta on the left), while Alberto Aquilani occupied the central midfield position alongside Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso (in-form Daniele De Rossi and usual starter Massimo Ambrosini were left on the bench). Meanwhile, the confirmation of Andrea Barzagli alongside Fabio Cannavaro should serve as almost-conclusive evidence that Marco Materazzi lost his starting role with the Azzurri.

Italy’s start of the match was, without exaggeration, thundering. Gattuso (yes, Gattuso!) had the first shot on target (deflected), shortly followed by Panucci, which eventually lead to the 9th minute opener by Antonio Di Natale. The Udinese striker summoned his best technical abilities by converting a pinpoint cross from the right wing, and slamming it home past Stijn Stijnen with a rotating short-range volley. The provider? Andrea Pirlo, who else? 1-0 Italy.

Following their goal, the Azzurri continued to have fun. Their ball possession, energy, passing game were top-notch and far exceeded the resistance provided by their Belgian counterparts. Luca Toni was doing what Toni does best, holding the ball, laying it up for his teammates, or attempting to take on the two center-backs himself (often succeeding, but being however unable to get a good shot in), all the while the constant overlaps of Panucci and Camoranesi on the right wing were creating havoc in the Belgian defense. Only Aquilani was being perhaps a bit too casual in his ball distribution, giving up the ball a couple of times and being duly reprimanded by Donadoni on the occasion. The Roma midfielder more than compensated for it however, by providing Di Natale with the one-touch assist for the second goal of the game, a low finish into the bottom-right corner that left Stijnen no chance. 2-0 Italy at the break, but not before Toni headed a Panucci cross narrowly over the bar.

In the second half, time for some Azzurri changes: Cannavaro, Panucci and Di Natale out, Chiellini, Grosso, and Del Piero in. Inspired substitutions these were, in particular regarding the latter: immediately receiving two aerial through balls by Pirlo, the Juventus striker delayed play keeping his marker occupied, then dished out a delicate no-look pass towards the right for Mauro Camoranesi. The Italo-Argentine hit a low ball between the keeper’s legs and increased the Azzurri’s goaltotal to three. 3-0 Italy = magnifico! (or in the words of Donadoni: “Perfetto!”).

Eventually around the hour mark, there was time for Antonio Cassano as well. Replacing Camoranesi, the remaining 30 minutes showcased exactly what the Italian press had so eagerly anticipated the previous week: the concurrent utilization of Del Piero, Toni and Cassano. In particular, the utilization of the Juve captain as a second striker (not as a left winger), just as the doctor ordered for maximum efficiency. During this time however, while the Azzurri’s energy-level suffered no drop in performance, their cohesion certainly did. Far from the thoroughly play-tested and over-rehearsed 4-3-3 formation, Italy’s free-flowing passing began to suffer, and the fact the Belgian defenders were getting a little too physical for general taste (on Cassano in particular) certainly didn’t help.

Eventually, the Don also brought on Marco Borriello in place of Toni (undoubtedly in order to assess the player’s level of form). Well, the early verdict on the ex-Genoa (now AC Milan) striker still raises some eyebrows, as Borriello incredibly missed an open net chance served to him on a platter by Zambrotta. Stagefright? Anyways, there weren’t many other scoring opportunities left in this game, save for a Zambrotta left-footer (parried by Stijnen) and Cassano header over the bar (set up by Del Piero). Belgium came close to goal with Wesley Sonck (header wide), then with… Wesley Sonck (parried by Buffon), and eventually found their goal through… Wesley Sonck (headed corner in the 92nd). 3-1.

The Club Brugge striker had indeed the most active of his team in trying to find the back of the net, although on the occasion there was perhaps some excessive laxness in the Azzurri’s man-marking. Since Italy were already up by 3, we’re ready to forgive them missing out on the clean sheet, but vacation’s over guys: next week’s the real deal!


 Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio ITALY-BELGIUM
[Match Highlights]
Belgium FA (KBVB/URBSFA: Koninklijke Belgische Voetbalbond, Union Royale Belge des Societes de Football Association)
GOALSCORERS: 9’, 41’ Di Natale (I), 49’ Camoranesi (I), 92’ Sonck (B)
ITALY (4-3-3): Buffon – Panucci (46’ Grosso), F.Cannavaro (46’ Chiellini), Barzagli, Zambrotta – Gattuso, Pirlo, Aquilani (75’ Ambrosini) – Camoranesi (61’ Cassano), Toni (75’ Borriello), Di Natale (46’ Del Piero). (bench: Amelia, De Sanctis, Materazzi, De Rossi, Perrotta, Quagliarella). Coach: Donadoni.
BELGIUM (4-3-1-2): Stijnen – Hoefkens (46’ Swerts), Kompany, Vertonghen, Pocognoli – Witsei (71’ Gillet), Simons, Mudingayi (84’ Huysgens) – Defour (58’ Mirallas) – Fellaini, Dembele (58’ Sonck). (bench: Renard, De Roover, De Man, Mulemo). Coach: Vandereycken.


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