In soccer, there are two kind of supporters: the first type watches the sport because of love for the beautiful game, and thus doesn’t care who wins or loses for as long as the matches are entertaining. And then there’s the type who above all wants its favorite team to win, and if they also play spectacular soccer, that’s a bonus. The Italy-Georgia match of Saturday evening will have no doubt pleased the latter type, but deeply disappointed the former.
One goal in each half (by Andrea Pirlo and Fabio Grosso) was sufficient for the Azzurri to obtain a 2-0 victory over a very modest Georgian team, one that seldom stuck their heads close to Gigi Buffon’s net. Meanwhile, the other matches of favorites & co-leaders of group B Euro 2008 qualifiers, saw Scotland vanquish Ukraine 3-1 at Hampden Park, while France traveled to Faroe Island to steamroll the hosts 6-0. At the top of group B, nothing’s changed: Scotland is still 1st with 24 pts, Italy 2nd on 23, France 3rd on 22. We’re getting close to D-Day…
Tactically, before the match the biggest question to answer for Roberto Donadoni was the choice of Vincenzo Iaquinta’s replacement (the Juve striker had to be sent home this morning due to increasing flu symptoms). The Italian coach decided to pick Fabio Quagliarella, who went on to complete the attacking trio made up of Luca Toni and Antonio Di Natale. Also, despite his precarious form, Lyon’s Fabio Grosso was chosen over Giorgio Chiellini for the left-back role, a move which actually turned out to be a winning one. On the other end, German coach Klaus Toppmoller fielded a compact Georgian team, whose formation was as difficult to read as the names of its players are difficult ot pronounce. Because of their limited technical baggage, the visitors essentially had to rely on a tight defensive mesh, and hope to hit the Italians with whichever break they could get.
The first few minutes of the match passed by exactly according to expectation: constant double-teaming on Luca Toni, and iron-tight pressuring of the Azzurri ball possession in their defensive third. From the initial phases, you’d actually have to wonder if the word ‘catenaccio’ didn’t have some very ancient roots somewhere in Tblisi. Anyways, while the visitors’ choice to concentrate all their efforts in defense resulted in very few (read: none) scoring opportunities for Georgia, one would have expected the Azzurri to try something more to break the deadlock. Unfortunately, despite the usual ‘grinta’ exhibited by Gennaro Gattuso, and the excellent energy and cover work of Massimo Ambrosini, the Italians couldn’t manage to create any sting.
The first ‘opportunity’ (if one may call it that way) was a 25m shot by Fabio Quagliarella, miles over the bar. The Udinese striker is having quite a poor run of form at the moment, a situation which was only made clearer by tonight’s performance (poor shooting, and an average contribution to the team effort, at best). In contrast, despite the asphyxiating man-marking he was being subjected to, Luca Toni demonstrated once again that he is an irreplaceable piece in the Azzurri squad: the target man transformed every aerial ball sent to him into a playable pass for his teammates, and often created danger himself due to his presence on high crosses. On one of such crosses at the 27th (courtesy of a great delivery by Di Natale), the Bayern man had the perfect opportunity to open the score for the Italians, but his headed effort hit the post and rebounded clear! 4 minutes later, another good chance for Toni (this time from an Andrea Pirlo free-kick cross) was sent slightly over the bar.
While Quagliarella was still trying to find himself, and Luca Toni was being… well… Toni, what about Totò Di Natale? The remaining piece of the Azzurri attacking trio was doing what he does best: constant changes of pace, exploiting his agility and technical baggage, and one-touch passing trying to open up space. The Udinese striker had a very good chance at the 37′ minute mark, following an average defensive clearance of the Georgian team, but his left-footed volleyed effort from 15 yards was over the bar!
As is often the case in such a tightly closed match, the salvation came from a set piece opportunity. 30 meters out, Andrea Pirlo delivered one of his specialties, and produced the goal to put the Azzurri in the lead. The Georgian goalkeeper Georgi Lomaia was a bit naive at getting completely surprised out of position, anticipating the cross to Toni. Before the half ended, Lomaia amended for his mistake by parrying away another good Pirlo FK effort. 1-0 at the break.
With their team in the lead, you’d have expected the Azzurri to play more relaxed and be a little more daring in the final third of the field. Not so. Instead, the Italians still stubbornly refused to challenge their opponents one-vs-one (sound familiar?), and constantly slowed the game down by passing back to their defenders. Donadoni was desperately trying to get his full-backs (Oddo and Grosso) to overlap on the wings, in order to create some crossing opportunities, but even that didn’t work. The Milan right-back notably was having a very poor night in terms of passing delivery, his crosses always falling short of the mark or being too long.
Toppmoller tried to use what little ammo he had available to give his team a few hopes (out Mchelidze for Kenia, 16 year-old prodigy and recent Schalke 04 acquisition), but with little effect. Not that the Azzurri were doing much to contribute, mind you. Donadoni, on his part, finally decided to take out Quagliarella and give Pasquale Foggia a chance to play. Cagliari’s nº10 was evidently too excited with his Azzurri shirt debut, because he lost the ball too many times due to excessive dribbling, but one of his (deflected) crosses almost made it to Luca Toni, who couldn’t connect with the ball. On the ensuing corner the Bayern man was ready however, but Lomaia showed some great reflexes to stop the ball.
5 minutes from the end, it was time for Fabio Grosso‘s return to the Azzurri goalscoring chart, his latest tally (I’m sure you all remember) being the game-winning-goal vs. Germany in 2006. Despite tonight’s goal wasn’t as beautiful (or as capital) as the one he produced in the World Cup semi-final, it was pretty nice nonetheless. The Lyon man first had a good chance from outside the box (his shot heading for the top corner) which was deflected away by a defender, but minutes later brilliantly set up by Luca Toni, made no mistakes in the 85th: controlling the ball, Grosso waited for the keeper to make his rush and chipped him onto the far post with a beautiful scooped shot. 2-0 Italy. Decidedly the only exciting moment in an otherwise very drab match.
|GOALSCORERS: 43’ Pirlo (I), 83’ Grosso (I)|
|ITALY (4-3-3): Buffon – Oddo, Panucci, Barzagli, Grosso – Gattuso, Pirlo, Ambrosini (88’ Mauri) – Quagliarella (71’ Foggia), Toni, Di Natale. (bench: Amelia, Bonera, Chiellini, De Rossi, Lucarelli). Coach. Donadoni.|
|GEORGIA (4-4-2): Lomaia – Khizanshvili, Shashashvili (61’ Kenia), Asatiani, Salukvadze – Tskitishvili, Kirkvelia, Menteshashvili, Kankava – Michedlidze (61’ Siradze), Demetradze (85’ Jakobia) (bench: Makaridze, Kandelaki, Kvakhadze, Tatanashvili). Coach: Toppmoller|
I don’t know how to feel, quite honestly. I don’t know if I should feel resigned to the fact Italy just can’t perform well against ‘small’ teams, and the fact that we make our lives complicated when they shouldn’t be, or if I should feel angry that it’s not just an Italian ‘custom’ to underperform against teams like the Ukraine or Georgia, but rather indicative of a bigger problem at the root (be it tactical choices, team’s motivation, or whatnot). Regardless, it’s safe to say we played poorly tonight. Once again, we were confronted to an opponent that had obvious limitations technically (compared to us), and when everyone expected us to turn on the style, we simply grew content of the lead and the rest was pure administration.
I will give Georgia one concession: they defended well. They had limited resources, and tried to play however they could and limit the damage. However, Italy’s performance was insufficient. I’ll repeat what I said for the game against Ukraine: we have players which are good enough to attempt more one-to-one dribbling challenges, we can’t always wait for Camoranesi to do that kind of thing. Foggia tried a little bit today (but awkwardly), Di Natale even less (his were essentially accelerations)… I want more, please Azzurri, give us more!
Regarding the defense, not much to say. Called into action very rarely, the center-backs did well (Panucci especially). Buffon had one save to make the entire game I think. Pirlo: great free kick, poor passing (for his standards) today… way too many wasted balls. Luca Toni: a monster… always fighting for the ball, winning most of his duels, and I think he lost only one ball the entire match. Italy can’t play without him.
Who will make it out Group B in the end? Really hard to say: the rankings are the same they were before today, in order Scotland, Italy, France separated by 1 point each. Italy’s next game against Scotland will be absolutely vital, because I expect nothing less of the Scots than to beat Georgia on their next game. Meanwhile, France is playing Lithuania at home (should be another easy 3 points), so it’s all come down to the next match for the Azzurri.
Note: At the end of the match, Donadoni revealed the call-up list for the friendly match against South Africa on Wednesday. The Italian coach obviously wants to try out a few new faces before the final Euro 2008 qualifiers rush, because he called up a boatload of newcomers, among which Paolo Cannavaro (Fabio’s brother), Antonio Nocerino, and (finally!) Alessandro Rosina.
Here goes the full list:
|Goalkeepers: Amelia (Livorno), Curci (Roma)|
|Defenders: Zaccardo (Palermo), Mesto (Reggina), Bonera (Milan), Gamberini (Fiorentina), P.Cannavaro (Napoli), Chiellini (Juventus), Dossena (Udinese)|
|Midfielders: De Rossi (Roma), Palombo (Sampdoria), Nocerino (Juventus), Montolivo (Fiorentina), Semioli (Fiorentina), Foggia (Cagliari), Mauri (Lazio), Rosina (Torino)|
|Forwards: Lucarelli (Shakhtar Donetsk), Gilardino (Milan), Iaquinta (Juventus)|