One team on its way to a finals, the other to the beach
Strachan’s shadow boxers unable to put up a fight in uninspired display
DEFEAT to such a revered footballing nation is no embarrassment and especially not by such a respectable scoreline.
Yet, the 1-0 loss which Scotland suffered to Italy in a friendly international in the Ta’ Qali Stadium here in Malta last night could, but for some sloppy finishing by their opponents, have been much worse.
The national team will return to the same venue for their opening World Cup qualifier in September when they will take on the host nation and will hope and expect to fare far better.
But this one-sided encounter against a country bound for the Euro 2016 finals in France next month provided no evidence that Gordon Strachan’s charges are capable of progressing to Russia 2018.
Scotland, watched by more than 1000 supporters as they played their penultimate match before getting their Group F campaign under way, struggled to get out of their own half, won a single corner and had a solitary shot at goal. That came late on and was off target.
Yes, several potential starters were missing, including captain Scott Brown, Alan Hutton, Shaun Maloney, Andrew Robertson and Robert Snodgrass, but Strachan could take precious little from this workout.
A stark improvement will be required from all involved for a damaging defeat to be avoided against France in Metz this Saturday.
David Marshall could be forgiven for feeling under pressure after the outstanding contributions of Allan McGregor and Craig Gordon in the friendly matches against the Czech Republic and Denmark respectively back in March.
However, if the Cardiff City goalkeeper is it didn’t show last night. He produced an excellent double save in the seventh minute after Russell Martin had gifted Italy a free-kick in a dangerous area just outside of his penalty box with a barge on Eder.
Marshall did well to first block the treacherous low shot which Antonio Candreva unleashed at him and then deny the follow-up shot from Emanuele Giaccherini from close range and keep Scotland level.
Darren Fletcher captained the side in the absence of Scott Brown and formed the central midfield partnership with James McArthur. The pair worked hard to break down opposition attacks and steal possession against rivals who quickly took control of the game.
They were unable to prevent Candreva from combining with Giaccherini in the 23rd minute to create another opportunity for Antonio Conte’s side. The Lazio man cut the ball back to the Bologna midfielder in space in the penalty area. His team mate skied his shot high into the stands.
By their own high standards, this is not a great Italian side. They are currently rated 15th in the current FIFA world rankings behind the likes of Austria, Turkey and Switzerland and are 16-1 outsiders with some bookmakers to win Euro 2016.
They lack the midfield ingenuity for which they were so long renowned and which Andrea Pirlo, omitted from this preliminary squad, has provided for so long. Up front, they are without a striker of the calibre of Roberto Baggio, a Paolo Rossi or a Christian Vieri.
Still, even an average Italy team is a formidable adversary and Scotland certainly struggled to contain them. Giaccherini was heavily involved and should have put his country in front on the half hour mark after being sent clean through on goal by Daniele De Rossi. Once again, his attempt sailed over.
Italy had a penalty claim waved away by referee Alan Mario Sant just before half-time after Eder went to ground following a challenge by Grant Hanley. The Maltese match official got his decision spot on. But Scotland were highly fortunate not to fall behind during the opening 45 minutes.
Strachan handed a debut to Callum Paterson, the 21-year-old who has enjoyed a fine season with Hearts in the Ladbrokes Premiership, at right back. Having to shackle Matteo Darmian of Manchester United was a big ask. But he can be encouraged by his solid showing.
Paterson came off and was replaced by Christophe Berra at the start of the second half as Strachan shuffled his defence. The substitute slotted in at centre half and Martin moved out wide. The change made little difference to the flow of the game.
Ross McCormack started up front for the second time in three internationals. For a player who spent over two years out of the side until being recalled for the friendly against the Czechs it is quite a return to favour for the Fulham forward. He received little service, though, and was unable to trouble Gianluigi Buffon in the Italy goal. Steven Fletcher took over from him in the second half.
Matt Phillips worked hard on the right flank and Ikechi Anya dropped back and helped out with defensive duties frequently. He certainly needed to. But the wingers could do nothing to create any openings. Buffon’s only involvement in proceedings was to claim a Matt Ritchie free-kick which he did comfortably.
Italy finally edged in front in the 57th minute when Pelle curled a right foot shot beyond Marshall from 20 yards out. The Scottish players had ample opportunities to halt the attack during its build-up. But Fletcher, who gave away the ball when he fell over it on the touchline, must accept a fair amount of responsibility.
Steven Naismith came on for Anya and Oliver Burke replaced Phillips in the 72nd minute. The former teed up Ritchie with Scotland’s best scoring chance of the match six minutes after taking to the field when he laid the ball off for him. But the Bournemouth player sliced his effort wide of goal.
NICE TO SEE YOU: Italy’s Salvatore Sirigu, left, chats with former goalkeeper Walter Zenga prior to kick-off at last night’s friendly.