The Azzurri did just about enough to grind out a win over 10-man Armenia, but it was a reality check for Giancarlo Rinaldi.
It wasn’t pretty nor very much deserved, that’s for sure. If grinding out wins in uninspiring fashion is a symptom of coming down with a winning mentality, then this might be just what the Azzurri team doctor ordered. For the rest of us, enthused by some of the nice football seen in previous outings, a flattering triumph over Armenia felt about as good as chugging down your cough medicine when you are six years old.
We couldn’t say, I suppose, that we had not been warned. The usual mutterings about the game being too early in the Serie A season proved prophetic once more. Nobody ever made much money by betting on Italy being impressive in their first outing of a new season. If bookies paid out on a display’s quality, they’d have been keeping their cash firmly in their pockets once again.
In the end, of course, three points are three points and another vital step towards Euro 2020, and there was the consolation that it looked – at times – like things could have been worse. A lacklustre opening quarter of an hour – when Roberto Mancini’s side went behind to an Alexander Karapetyan strike – threatened to make it an even longer evening.
To watch a man who looked like Daniele De Rossi’s bulky Armenian cousin waltz through to score was a worry. The spectre of a Giorgio Chiellini-shaped hole in the defence was evident in front of Gigio Donnarumma. It was hard to think the injured Juve stalwart would not have made a better fist of blocking the onrushing forward before he found the net.
Credit to the team for shaking off that shock to produce a decent comeback. They started to knock on the door – with Chelsea’s Emerson continuing his good league form – and it was no surprise he had a part to play in the equaliser. When he set up Andrea Belotti, it looked like winning would be a formality. How wrong we were.
A dodgy red card for Armenia’s goalscorer – with a second yellow for an elbow which appeared to make minimal contact on Leonardo Bonucci – ought to have made the task even easier, but it singularly failed to do so. The playing surface may not have been perfect, but there were too many sloppy passes and too many wrong decisions made, as Mancio went doolally on the sidelines. It surprised nobody when he whipped off both his Federicos – Chiesa and Bernardeschi – in the second half. Neither delivered the impact they would have hoped for.
To add to Italian frustration, Marco Verratti picked up a senseless booking which rules him out of the upcoming Finland game. The little midfielder is brilliant, but he does seem to have a love affair with the yellow card which is frustrating. It is hard to build a team around a man who is likely to pick up a suspension with alarming regularity. Mind you, he’s so lovely to watch on the ball, you have to forgive him some failings. Not everybody does, of course.
As Team Italia huffed and puffed it looked more like they might get caught on the break by new Roma man Henrikh Mkhitaryan and his companions despite their one-man disadvantage than power on to win. Goals from sub Lorenzo Pellegrini and a Belotti shot that bounced in off the goalie eventually gave a flattering scoreline.
They might even have had more – with Il Gallo having a strike incorrectly ruled offside – but that would have been truly hurtful to the fans in Yerevan.
There’s no need to panic about the drab nature of the performance as long as the Azzurri get the job done in Finland, but this was a little reality check.
On the back foot, Italy looked out of sorts and underlined why they need to take the game to opponents as much as they can. They also need to sharpen up their finishing and decision making when they are on top if they hope to dispense with these games in more convincing fashion.
Italy fans of long-standing have seen more displays like this than they would care to think about. The important thing, we know, is to learn the lessons it provided in order to be ready for the sterner tests to come.