Florence was the center of all things Italian football on Thursday, as Gli Azzurri took on Malta in a must-win European Championship qualifier. With them in the middle of a close three-way race for the two direct qualification spots out of Group H with Croatia and Norway, Italy had to secure all three points against last-place Malta in order to assure that they wouldn't fall behind. That's exactly what they did, with Graziano Pelle grabbing a second-half goal to give Italy a 1-0 lead that they wouldn't relinquish.
Let's be honest here, though: Italy stunk. They dominated possession, sure, but Malta hardly tried to challenge them for it. They just bunkered and hoped for the best. "The best" in this case being attackers not moving into acres of space being left in the defense and the midfielders not getting the ball to them reliably, which is exactly what happened. Italy looked utterly hapless in the first half, creating just a handful of half-chances and completely wasting several tasty set pieces to go to the break scoreless.
The second half was better, with a few tactical adjustments opening things up a bit and the substitutions helping even more. That helped lead to Italy's goal, but still, with Italy facing Malta, you would have thought they could do better than one scraped-out goal that came when half of Malta's defense thought play was stopped for a foul, and may or may not have involved a handball. But hey, three points is all that matters right now.
Norway beat Bulgaria 1-0 to keep pace two points behind Italy, but the Azzurri were handed a boost to their qualification chances when Azerbaijan held Croatia to a 0-0 draw at home. That leaves Italy and Croatia even on 15 points, though Italy are eight goals down in the goal differential tiebreaker. Still, with three matches left in qualifying and Italy likely to win all three, they have to be feeling good about their chances of topping the group right now.
For Napoli involvement, Manolo Gabbiadini started the match but was barely involved in the first half. He was better early in the second half, but shortly before the hour mark he picked up some kind of injury to his left leg and was effectively out of the match after that, until getting officially pulled off the pitch in favor of Antonio Candreva a few minutes later. The severity of his injury is unknown, but trainers did allow him to remain on the bench for the rest of the match, so hopefully it isn't too bad. Lorenzo Insigne was an unused substitute.
Three things we learned
1. Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti should never play at the same time
Both players are very good on their day and offer the national team a lot of quality. The trouble is, they play so similarly that they almost get in each others' way, reducing their effectiveness and exacerbating their weaknesses. Both are deeper playmakers who need a box-to-box runner to help shield them, which is fine and dandy until you have both of them in the same midfield and are forced to use the likes of Andrea Bertolacci to cover for them. Bertolacci is an OK player, but he was overwhelmed by how much he had to do in this match and was utterly ineffective, severing any link between attack and midfield.
They need to drop one of Pirlo or Verratti and replace them with someone who gets forward in attack more reliably in order to restore balance to the midfield -- but the trouble is, there's no obvious option for that in the player pool right now. Even if they don't do that, though, dropping one of those two is a must to either get a better balance to things -- either another shuttling midfielder or a holder to add real defensive value could do a lot of good with how Italy have been playing.
2. The attack needs something different to work
Especially with the midfield disconnected as it was today, there's a big lack of creativity in the final third for Italy right now. Graziano Pelle, Manolo Gabbiadini, and Eder are all good at numerous things going forward, but none of them have any particular creative knack. Especially with so many bodies back against them in defense, no one could manage to find that critical pass to help unlock things.
It's no surprise, then, that introducing Antonio Candreva to the match helped Italy out so much. While Candreva has his limitations, he's a good man to have try to pick out the pass or cross that's needed to open up a defense in the final third. Had he been played from the start, it's likely that Italy could have scored at least a couple more goals.
It'd be wonderful if Mario Balotelli and Giuseppi Rossi weren't permanently broken -- albeit in different ways -- because those two up top would be an almost perfect pairing for Italy.
3. Antonio Conte still makes solid in-game adjustments
While the starting lineup was a mess and tactics just didn't work early on, it's hard to deny that Conte's fixes didn't work. Even before his substitutions, he started making adjustments to his players' positioning and roles to solve some of the problems Italy were facing. Verratti was tasked to sit a little higher up the pitch, the fullbacks were unleashed to better join the attack, and both Gabbiadini and Eder were pinched in a little closer so they could more directly support Pelle.
Those tweaks helped open things up for Italy, and Conte's subs helped even more. Marco Parolo wasn't spectacular, but he was far more involved in his first ten minutes than Andrea Bertolacci was in 55. Conte was forced into subbing in Candreva by Gabbiadini's injury, but his creative spark was the right call at the right time, and Italy scored five minutes later and had their post dangerous attacks of the match with him at the heart of them. Even Roberto Soriano, as limited as time as he had on the pitch, made a noticeable impact, moving around on the pitch more aggressively than Verratti to help supplement the buildup to the attack from various positions and angles.
At least Conte knows how to fix his team's problems after they crop up. Now if only he could figure out how to keep them from being a problem in the first place...
Italy: Buffon; Darmian, Bonucci, Chiellini, Pasqual; Verratti (Soriano 78'), Pirlo, Bertolacci (Parolo 55'); Gabbiadini (Candreva 64'), Pelle, Eder
Goal: Pelle 69'
Malta: Hogg; A Muscat, S Borg, Z Muscat, Agius, Failla; R Muscat, P Fenech, Briffa (Sciberras 90'+1); Effiong (Mifsud 90'+3); Schembri (Kristensen 73')