Every once in awhile, the narrative changes from a great annoyance to something highly amusing. That was the case today when Eder, the center of much controversy this week around the Italy national side, scored a late goal to gift Italy a 2-2 draw in an otherwise dour performance for Gli Azzurri as they played Bulgaria on the road.
It was a delightful start for Italy, with a chance coming for Ciro Immobile almost right off the first whistle, and scoring the opening goal on a Yordan Minev own goal just three minutes in. Italy were dominating throughout the first ten minutes, holding almost all of the possession and looking certain to score more.
Then we rolled past the 10 minute mark, and things got not-so-fun.
Bulgaria started getting a little faster and sharper on the counter attack, and that quickly started to pay dividends for the hosts. A ball from Stanislav Manolev in to the gap between Italy's midfield and defense found Ivan Popov with space and time to space, and he hammered a shot past Salvatore Sirigu to punish Italy's woeful defensive efforts.
Six minutes and several scares for Italy later, the embarrassment only grew. Marco Verratti, nominally Italy's deepest midfielder thanks to a series of injuries to more senior players, pulled out of a crucial challenge that gave Georgi Milanov a free run in to the box. Leo Bonucci was too slow to react, and Milanov was able to get off a cross that Ilian Micanski was able to flick past Sirigu, giving the Bulgarian striker his first goal for club or country since September.
Neither of Sirigu's efforts to make the save were impressive, but given that Gianluigi Buffon was supposed to start this match before succumbing to the flu this morning, that may not be surprising. What wasn't at all acceptable, though, was Italy's horribly imbalanced and dysfunctional midfield, which offered zero defensive support. Verratti was positioned as a defensive mid of sorts, but make no mistake: he is a terrible, terrible defender. Without the mountain of midfield quality that PSG puts around him, he was left horribly exposed and overwhelmed in midfield, and that gave Bulgaria free run after free run at Italy's defense.
Italy were ultimately unlucky not to give up a third goal when Popov skimmed a shot off the crossbar from a free kick, as he had Sirigu completely beaten. The Azzurri had a chance to score another themselves when Ciro Immobile got a free header at the far post, but the Neapolitan forward couldn't get his diving effort on-frame, and Italy went limping in to the half trailing a match they should have been dominating.
The second half didn't go a whole lot better for Italy, with too many cheap turnovers and panicked moments at the back. They were able to force some problems of their own, with Nikolai Mihaylov looking extremely shaky on crosses and set pieces, but Italy could never seem to take full advantage of the chances they generated.
Antonio Conte made three attack-minded subs to try to break the deadlock, including handing Sampdoria forward Eder his Italy debut and bringing on Napoli forward Manolo Gabbiadini, but Italy kept on struggling to find a breakthrough. Finally, though, one came, with Giorgio Chiellini putting the ball at Eder's feet at the top of the box. One brilliant turn and shot later, and the nationalized Italian scored on his debut, using his skill and quality to thumb his nose at everyone who called for Antonio Conte's head for daring to call in a foreign-born player who had the audacity to build his career towards becoming part of the Italian national team.
Italy tried desperately to find a third, winning goal, but they couldn't break down a resolute defense from Bulgaria. In the end they had to settle for a road draw, which puts them two points out of first place after Croatia blasted Norway 5-1 earlier. It's not where Italy hoped to find themselves going in to today, but at the halfway point of Euro 2016 qualifying, it's also not strictly a bad place to be in -- just so long as they perform better in future qualifying matches.
Bulgaria: Mihaylov; Manolev, Bodurov, A Aleksandrov, Minev; Dyakov, Gadzhev; Milanov (Vasilev 88'), Popov (Slavchev 85'), M. Alexandrov; Micanski (Bojinov 73')
Goals: Popov (11'), Micanski (17')
Italy: Sirigu; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Darmian, Candreva, Verratti, Bertolacci (Soriano 71'), Antonelli (Gabbiadini 77'); Zaza (Eder 58'), Immobile
Goals: Minev (OG 3'), Eder (84')