Northern Ireland rue missed chances and goalkeeping as Italy do enough to win
World Cup 2022 European qualifying group C: Italy 2-0 Northern Ireland
A WONDER goal and a blunder goal did the damage as stylish Italy beat Northern Ireland in this opening World Cup qualifier – but victory was nowhere near as comfortable as it seemed set to be beforehand or even at half-time.
The visitors showed plenty of spirit in the second half but could not recover from the goals conceded before the break to attackers Domenico Berardi and Ciro Immobile.
The Italians had the finishing quality to provide the difference in class and make the impact on the scoreboard – and they were also helped by poor goalkeeping.
In contrast, Northern Ireland could not convert their chances, notably openings for Gavin Whyte and Michael Smith in quick succession 10 minutes into the second half, then a glaring opportunity blazed over late on by Paddy McNair.
Even a point was always going to be unlikely but the visitors certainly should have netted at least once – and will rue the sloppy second goal let in by goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the 39th minute.
Italy were always in control, confident and composed as befits a side now unbeaten in 23 matches, and could relax on the cushion that two-goal advantage allowed them.
Yet if they though the job was done they were wrong – and if Northern Ireland had been able to score before the hour mark, as they threatened to do, then a surprise outcome – a draw - could have ensued.
NI boss Ian Baraclough went with a largely experienced line-up, but did include Ali McCann in midfield for only his third cap, in preference to George Saville, while Whyte earned a rare start in attack. His role was to link play to the centre-forward, his current Hull City colleague, Josh Magennis.
Without regular left-back Jamal Lewis, ruled out by a groin problem, Stuart Dallas was asked to operate at left wing-back, alongside another versatile player, McNair, on the left of a back three. Smith got the nod at right wing-back, although in practice the defensive system was more of a back five.
Skipper Steven Davis earned his 125th cap, matching the UK-high tally of former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton.
Although Italian centre half Leonardo Bonucci became an international centurion there was no sentimentality around, with his Juventus clubmate Giorgio Chiellini retaining the captain's armband on his 106th appearance.
With that grizzled duo at the back, long balls launched forward in the first half by the visitors were as dangerous as throwing buns at a pair of bears.
Still, the men in away white did have the first half-chance, Whyte and McCann playing a 1-2 before the former's good footwork earned a corner.
Indeed it was a generally solid start by the underdogs, as Italy probed patiently for an opening.
Initially it seemed that Berardi, with his tendency to cut in from the right of the front three onto his left foot, would get clogged up in traffic.
However, he soon began to display all his ability, starting with the superbly-taken opening goal in the 14th minute. Right-back Alessandro Florenzi chipped a clever pass through the corridor of indecision between McNair and Dallas, finding Berardi in acres of space. The 26-year-old then drifted infield and brilliantly blasted the ball high past Peacock-Farrell and inside the post.
Then twice inside four minutes he found room on the right again and delivered excellent crosses. The first reached Immobile, who was denied by the keeper. The second was nodded narrowly wide past the far post by attacking left-back Emerson of Chelsea.
Northern Ireland composed themselves somewhat after that although the defence continued to live on the edge, surviving thanks to several narrow offside calls in their favour.
The visitors were keeping their shape, but then were too static as the Italians zipped the ball around with pace and precision.
Ironically, a rare foray forward proved costly for NI, when it ended with Smith sending a weak cross into the hands of goalkeeper
The second goal that the hosts merited followed within seconds. Donnarumma rolled the ball out, it was moved on directly to Lorenzo Insigne, who released Immobile in the inside left channel.
It was a dangerous situation, and he struck his shot low and fiercely on the run, but Peacock-Farrell should not have been beaten at his near post.
Immobile carried Italy's first threat of the second half, heading wide after a cleverly-worked free kick routine, but Northern Ireland then twice came close to halving the deficit.
A weak back-pass by Locatelli almost let Whyte in but the goalkeeper reacted sharply to stretch a leg out and block his poked shot to half-clear. McNair then seized on the ball and swung it to the right where Smith came racing in – but his left-foot shot was parried by Donnarumma.
Baraclough's men continued to push forward gamely, helped by the half-time introduction of Saville into midfield for Corry Evans. However, Smith saw another shot loop over from a deflection, while Magennis could not get a touch on a clipped low cross from Jonny Evans, although Donnarumma was still forced to flap it away.
Italian boss Roberto Mancini made five changes in an attempt to spark a more lively display from the hosts, but it was Northern Ireland who should have netted the third goal of the game.
A bunch of white-shirted players pressed in the Italian area, Davis swivelled and rolled the ball across – but McNair, with the goal gaping, drove his shot high over the bar. Immobile and sub Spinazzola had late sights of goal but a third for Italy would have been cruel.
So it ended with a fairly predictable scoreline, but Northern Ireland will take hope from their second half display into next week's second qualifier at home to Bulgaria, who lost their opener 3-1 to Switzerland.
Italy (4-3-3): Donnarumma; Florenzi, Bonucci, Chiellini (capt.), Emerson (Spinazzola, 75); L Pellegrini (Barella, 64), Locatelli (Pessina, 84), Verratti; Berardi (Chiesa, 75), Immobile, Insigne (Grifo, 84).
Northern Ireland (5-3-2): Peacock-Farrell; Smith, Cathcart, J Evans, McNair, Dallas; C Evans (Saville, h-t), Davis (capt.), McCann (Thompson, 78); Whyte (Lavery, 64), Magennis (Lafferty, 78).