Who’d have thought? The biggest surprise of the day didn’t come from yet another disappointing Azzurri performance (victory aside), but the incredible 1-0 win of Scotland on French soil (courtesy of Everton striker James McFadden). It really can’t get any tighter in group B, because this surprising result (coupled with Italy’s win in Kiev) now sees Scotland ranked 1st with 21 pts, Italy 2nd on 20, and France 3rd on 19. With 3 games left in the group for all three teams, the November 11 fixture at Celtic Park might prove to be key for the Azzurri’s Euro 2008 hopes.
France-Scotland aside, Donadoni‘s Azzurri managed to avoid yet another disappointing result in Kiev by overcoming Shevchenko‘s team on a score of 2-1. Two goals by Udinese striker Antonio Di Natale have given the Italian coach a breather from the severe criticism of the Italian media, and the opportunity to look at his next qualifier games with relieved pressure. In terms of play though, Italy still has got a lot of work to do.
As anticipated in the press, Donadoni opted a return to his old 4-2-3-1 formation, with 2 defensive midfielders (Pirlo & Ambrosini), 3 offensive playmakers (from right to left, Camoranesi, Perrotta, and Di Natale), and a lone striker up front (Iaquinta). Perhaps due to the still limited physical conditions of the Azzurri players (a topic which has been debated ad nauseam these past few weeks), the Italian coach made many changes in the starting line-up compared to the match vs. France Saturday. Thus, Panucci, Ambrosini, Perrotta, Di Natale, and Iaquinta were all thrown into the mix for their colleagues Oddo, De Rossi, Gattuso (susp.), Del Piero, and Inzaghi. In light of his not-so-brilliant performance Saturday, Del Piero didn’t even appear on the bench, he was sent straight to the stands, along with Shakhtar Donetsk striker Cristiano Lucarelli.
The Ukrainian coach also made a few key moves in his roster, following his team’s 1-1 draw vs. Georgia: off Voronin and Rotan, in Kalynychenko and Gai. His formation: a modified 4-1-4-1 line-up with Tymoschuk to provide the link between defense and midfield and Andriy Shevchenko as the lone striker. The Chelsea star hadn’t been in the greatest of forms lately, but called into action by his native country, all bets were off. Only 4 minutes had passed on the clock and Ukraine obtained its first chance: a 20m free kick that Sheva-gol slammed with violence onto the bottom part of the crossbar! Fortunately for Italy the rebound was cleared away, but this was an early indication it wasn’t going to be an easy game.
Much like Domenech had done Saturday, the Ukrainian coach Blokhin had organized a tight defensive net around the Azzurri players: high pressure in midfield (limiting Italy’s maneuvering abilities) and frequent double man-marking on the ball bearer. In front, the pale performance of Iaquinta can only be excused by the fact the Juve striker had virtually no space to move, always closed down by two Ukrainian central backs. On the other end, the verve and agility of Shevchenko (growing in form during the match), well supported by the wingers Kalynychenko and Gusev, was creating many problems to the Italy defense. Two back-to-back opportunities for the ex-Milan star gave shivers to Buffon, first on a deep run followed by a narrowly wide effort, then on yet another mid-range free kick, that Italy’s nº1 had some trouble parrying away.
The first half-hour was painstaking endeavor for the Azzurri, who had trouble maneuvering and refused to try and challenge their opponents with one-on-one dribbles, for fear of losing the ball. Yet, despite the Ukrainian domination, a good break would give Italy the lead. After providing a good chance for Iaquinta early in the game (squandered by the poor control of the Juve striker), Pirlo activated his “spot pass” button once again, and delivered a perfect cross for Antonio Di Natale from the left wing. The Udinese striker may be small, but his header was perfectly coordinated to beat Ukrainian keeper Shovkovsky on the 2nd post, putting the Azzurri 1-0 ahead in the 40′.
An ideal time to score, as 5 minutes later English referee Howard Webb sent everyone to the changing room for half-time. After the break, the Ukrainian coach decided to insert some of his more offensive players (Voronin and Glady in for Kalinichenko and Nazarenko), and give his team a much-needed jump-start. And it worked. The Liverpool striker notably gave the “yellow and Blues” the spark necessary to push the ball forward a bit more, and obtain the equalizer. First, Buffon had to produce the miracle save of the day by neutralizing a close-range Sheva shot following a terrible Barzagli clearance. However, little could he do 4 minutes later, when two blocked shots of Tymoschuk and Gusev landed to the feet of Shevchenko, who simply had to apply the finish from the penalty spot. 1-1.
Fortunately, lady luck was with the Italians today (that, and a great Ambrosini hussle). The Milan midfielder threw himself at a Voronin backpass in Italy’s defensive zone, obtained two favorable rebounds at the half-line and immediately set up Antonio Di Natale clear on goal. The ex-Palermo player kept his cool in front of Shovkovsky, beating the keeper for his second tally of the game and the 2-1 final score.
|GOALSCORERS: 40′, 77’ Di Natale (I), 67’ Shevchenko (U)|
|UKRAINE (4-1-4-1): Shovkovsky – Rusol, Yezersky, Kucher, Gai – Tymoschuk – Gusev (88’ Milevsky), Nazarenko (dal 69’ Gladky), Shelaev, Kalinichenko (61’ Voronin), Hai – Shevchenko. (bench: Pyatov, Chiygrinski, Rotan, Grytsay) Coach: Blokhin.|
|ITALY (4-2-3-1): Buffon – Panucci, Cannavaro, Barzagli, Zambrotta – Pirlo, Ambrosini – Camoranesi (78’ Oddo), Perrotta (69’ Aquilani), Di Natale – Iaquinta (85’ Quagliarella). (bench: Amelia, Grosso, De Rossi, Inzaghi) Coach: Donadoni.|
The 3 points are in the bag, so that’s the most important thing. With that being said, Italy will not go very far in these qualifiers (let alone the tournament itself) if they stubbornly refuse to challenge players one-on-one when they have possession. You can talk all you want about physical condition, the fact that Serie A started later than all the other leagues, but I cannot understand why some Azzurri players get so scared with the least bit of pressure, and never try going for the dribble. Camoranesi is one of the few that does it, but with the degree of technical ability that Italy possesses, it’s almost scandalous to see the ball constantly being passed back. And with all due respect to any Ukrainian readers, it’s not like Blokhin’s team had fielded Ronaldinho & Co: we should be able to take those guys one-on-one!
Secondly, Italy really missed Luca Toni out there. There really is no other striker that fits Donadoni’s 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 formation better than the FC Bayern giant. However with that in mind, I would like the Italian coach to be a little more flexible with regards to his tactical schemes. Italy does not necessarily have to play with only one striker!!! There are alternatives! If we don’t have Toni we must be ready to revert to 2 strikers if necessary, a formation which would have (in my opinion) worked better into keeping the ball more in the Ukrainian half of the field (added pressure from the forwards).
And finally, what on Earth was the deal in putting Iaquinta in? He’s been looking to get his form back for over a month with Juve, still isn’t in top condition, and he gets to start over Inzaghi and Lucarelli? Really didn’t understand Donadoni on this one, and it was no surprise for me to see the Juve striker play poorly. Neither did I understand why he put Panucci on for Oddo in the right-back position. If the reason was anything other than a slight injury for Oddo (who came on from the bench during the game by the way), such a change can only create problems with regards to team hierarchy, now’s not the time to be changing an established line-up who’s been performing well (I am talking about the Italy defense). On a positive note, Panucci did okay for his Azzurri return.
Bottom line: I am glad for the victory, stunned by Scotland’s result, but my worries haven’t dissipated. This group may still have a few surprises left for us, and with 3 games left and the top 3 teams all within 2 points from each other, it’s going to be very tight race to the finish.