Written By Onyeka Daniel
After succeeding Roberto Mancini, former Napoli manager, Luciano Spalletti could only scrap a draw in his first game in charge, against North Macedonia, the same team that denied Italy a place in the last World Cup in Qatar.
The Azzurri opened a new era after Roberto Mancini’s sudden resignation on August 13, as Spalletti introduced a 4-3-3 formation, losing Federico Chiesa and Lorenzo Pellegrini to injury. It was an increasingly tight group after Ukraine held group leader, England to a 1-1 draw, as the Nazionale started with three points from two matches.
Nicolò Barella had the ball in the net at the third minute, but the goal was ruled out for offside. Federico Dimarco completed a give and go with Barella to forced a desperate scramble in the six-yard box, then Bryan Cristante’s glancing header from a corner flashed just wide.
However, the hosts had a huge chance too when Ezgjan Alioski robbed Matteo Politano to whip in a cross for the Bojan Miovski diving header wide of the far post. Sandro Tonali was unlucky not to open the scoring when he sprung the offside trap on an inspired Immobile ball over the top, the low drive beat the goalkeeper only to smack against the base of the upright.
Cristante’s volley from a Dimarco corner was parried by the goalkeeper’s legs and Gianluigi Donnarumma smothered the Eljif Elmas snapshot. Immobile pulled back from the by-line for Matteo Politano to sweep from 10 yards, but it was deflected off Alioski’s heel. It was very obvious that the pitch wasn’t in the best condition and soon enough, there was a substitution.
Nicolò Zaniolo replaced Politano and Italy broke the deadlock at the dawn of the second half. A poor clearance fell to Barella, whose volley from inside the area smacked against the crossbar, with Immobile ready to turn in the rebound.
The state of the turf did not help again as Gianluca Mancini, limped off clutching the top of his thigh and made way for Giorgio Scalvini, making it two forced substitution. Zaniolo combined with Immobile to see a shot charged down in the box, then Scalvini made a crucial block after the strong Eljif Elmas run, but could only watch as the Napoli winger bent a great shot inches wide of the far post.
Italy gave away a couple of free kicks right on the edge of the area and one proved costly, because Enis Bardhi hit a rocket into the far top corner that gave Gianluigi Donnarumma little chance. Despite their best efforts to grab a winner, they failed to break their opponent defense.
In his post match interview, Napoli and North Macedonia midfielder Eljif Elmas ‘was ready’ for Spalletti’s tactics, but also wanted to ‘apologise to everyone for the state of the pitch.’ “It is a great result, because we played on a frankly shameful pitch,” Elmas said. “I can only apologise to all Italians, to all of Europe. You cannot play football on a pitch like this. It was a problem for us just as much as it was for Italy.”
As a Napoli player, Elmas is very familiar with Scudetto-winner Spalletti and therefore knew the coach would bring a 4-3-3 formation and different concepts to the Italy team after replacing Roberto Mancini. “I saw many of the things that Spalletti did with us at Napoli, so we were ready. I was with him for two years, so I do know some things.”
The manager in his own assessment saw a ‘decent’ game from Italy, but admits they ‘could have done more’ and will make changes in the next EURO 2024 qualifier against Ukraine. “The suffering was when the game got messy and we were not ready to recreate the defensive solidity, so the clearances were often recaptured by their midfielders,” Spalletti said in his own post match interview.
“However, the team played a decent game that we can work on. We didn’t allow them much and we lacked the patience to make the right passes, when we had the time and space to do so. “The only element we have is to study this game and try to find improvements, to work on the concepts that did not work well enough, and rewatching the video will be just as valuable as a training session.
“We could’ve done better with quality, as they were defending with five, so we could’ve split them easier. That was also inevitable with the state of the pitch, as it is not possible to pass with quality on that turf.” The next encounter is on Tuesday at San Siro when Italy host Ukraine.
“We will also have to change a few players for the next game, because the pitch took its toll on them. I also had to take off some of the players who were on yellow cards and hoped to add more firepower with Raspadori. Unfortunately they scored the equaliser so late in the day, we didn’t have much time to react.”
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