Mancini yet to make an im­pact as goal-shy Italy cast en­vi­ous eye on Poland’s strik­ers

The National - News - - SPORT - IAN HAWKEY

On the face it, Group 3 of League A of Uefa’s in­au­gu­ral Na­tions League looks the mildest, the eas­i­est of the four top-seeded mini-leagues for a wounded coun­try to set about its re­cu­per­a­tion.

It is unique for in­clud­ing none of the semi-fi­nal­ists from the Rus­sia World Cup. Granted, it does have the reign­ing Eu­ro­pean cham­pi­ons, Por­tu­gal, in it but they are a Por­tu­gal at the mo­ment without the rested Cris­tiano Ron­aldo.

Yet for Italy, Group A3 in the Na­tions League has been a trial, and they face Poland to­day in Chor­zow fac­ing the prospect of rel­e­ga­tion from the top tier of the com­pe­ti­tion, less than a year af­ter the fail­ure to qual­ify for the World Cup.

A new man­ager, the much dec­o­rated Roberto Mancini, has since come in, but the same in­hi­bi­tions that set back the Az­zurri in fin­ish­ing sec­ond best to Spain in World Cup qual­i­fy­ing and then fall­ing to Swe­den in the play-offs for Rus­sia are still ev­i­dent.

Mancini takes charge for the sixth time tonight, and his sole vic­tory re­mains the May friendly against Saudi Ara­bia. Since then, his Italy have lost to France and, in the Na­tions League, to Por­tu­gal.

Poland were held 1-1 at home in his first com­pet­i­tive out­ing in charge, a slug­gish start to the Na­tions League, and cheer­ing only in that Italy man­aged a goal, Jorginho’s equaliser from the penalty spot. Goals from open play have been scarce.

There were none, via any route in two ex­cru­ci­at­ing games against Swe­den for the four-time world cham­pi­ons un­der pre­vi­ous man­ager Gi­ampiero Ven­tura. Such has been the clunky gear charge into the Mancini era that Fed­erico Ber­nade­schi’s strike against Ukraine, in last week’s friendly to raise funds for the vic­tims of the Genoa bridge tragedy, was cel­e­brated as a hope­ful sig­nal of en­ter­pris­ing times ahead.

Fact is that the Ju­ven­tus player’s goal ben­e­fited from an er­ror by Ukrainian keeper An­driy Py­a­tov; and the vis­i­tors equalised soon af­ter­wards.

In search of strik­ing op­tions, Mancini re­called Se­bas­tian Giovinco, 31, and deemed un­suit­able for the na­tional team by Mancini’s pre­de­ces­sors since he chose to take his nim­ble foot­work and sharp fin­ish­ing to the North Amer­i­can MLS.

His weight of goals for Toronto FC per­suaded Mancini that the diminu­tive Giovinco is worth a closer look.

The new man­ager also re­called Mario Balotelli last month af­ter his ex­tended ab­sence. Mancini can­not be ac­cused of not ex­plor­ing a range of pos­si­bil­i­ties in his search for the marks­man.

But that man may not ex­ist, even be part of the cul­ture of cal­cio. At least that seemed to be the point sug­gested by de­fender Leonardo Bonucci on the eve of the Chor­zow match.

“Italy have never had the sort of a goalscorer who will score 50 times for the coun­try,” Bonucci said, reach­ing back through the ar­chives all the way to the 1970s. “Our high­est goalscorer is Gigi Riva, who has 35 goals. Other coun­tries have play­ers with 50 or more.”

While re­luc­tant to di­ag­nose the prob­lem by lean­ing on the en­dur­ing, sim­plis­tic stereo­type that Ital­ian foot­ball pri­ori­tises de­fen­sive ex­cel­lence, Bonucci ob­served that “it is hard to find an Ital­ian striker who has 20 goals in 20 games.”

As it hap­pens, Lorenzo In­signe, who should start against Poland, has been on fine scor­ing form for Napoli this sea­son, and Lazio’s Ciro Im­mo­bile, who may have come off the bench, has been among the goals in Serie A.

But when Mancini, and the ex­pe­ri­enced Bonucci, look at tonight’s op­po­nents they would be for­given for a touch of envy.

Poland have short­com­ings, some of them ex­posed when they fin­ished bot­tom of their

group at the World Cup, but cul­ti­vat­ing top-class cen­tre-for­wards does not ap­pear to be among them.

Robert Le­wandowski, 30, should play his 101st match against Italy. The Bay­ern Mu­nich striker has scored 55 goals for Poland and has been the Bun­desliga’s lead­ing goalscorer in a sea­son three times.

His un­der­study for Poland is Arka­diusz Mi­lik, Napoli’s tar­get man. Also push­ing for a place in the line-up is Krzysztof Pi­atek, 23, mak­ing Ital­ians very fa­mil­iar with his ex­cel­lent in­stincts in the penalty area.

Pi­atek is Serie A’s top scorer in his first sea­son with Genoa for whom he has a re­mark­able 13 goals in eight games across com­pe­ti­tions. Last week, on his sec­ond cap for Poland, he added his 14th of the sea­son.

AP

Italy visit Poland to­day in Chor­zow with the Az­zurri on a five-match win­less streak

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