Italy’s world record unbeaten run was finally halted on Wednesday and although there is no panic on the peninsula, manager Roberto Mancini has some conundrums to solve leading up to the 2022 Fifa World Cup.
The manager said following his side’s 2-1 loss to Spain that it was “better to lose tonight than in the final of the European Championship or World Cup”, a point that is hard to disagree with.
Mancini’s side won the Euros during a 37-match unbeaten streak stretching back to September 2018, coming on the back of their humiliating failure to qualify for that year’s World Cup.
Although Italy would have loved to win a second trophy in three months on home soil in the Uefa Nations League, the general consensus is that this was a relatively harmless moment to suffer a defeat that allows the national team to move on.
“We are still the champions,” Gazzetta dello Sport said on its front page.
Corriere dello Sport simply wrote: “Thank you Italy”.
There were regrets. Captain Leonardo Bonucci picked up two yellow cards before halftime, and AC Milan fans in the San Siro crowd booed their own goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma months after he left the club.
But there were also lessons to be learned from the performance.
With first-choice strikers Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti missing through injury, Mancini opted to deploy Federico Bernardeschi as a false nine.
But the move proved ineffective, and Lorenzo Insigne was soon moved into the middle instead, where he missed one of Italy’s best chances of the night.
Mancini decided against starting a natural striker, 21-year-olds Moise Kean or Giacomo Raspadori, on a night when his Spanish counterpart Luis Enrique’s faith in youth paid off.
Gavi became Spain’s youngest ever international aged 17 years and 62 days and put in an outstanding performance in midfield, while 18-year-old winger Yeremy Pino impressed from the bench and 21-year-old Ferran Torres scored twice.
Italy have a talented new generation of their own, and a core of young players featured in Milan: Gianluigi Donnarumma, Alessandro Bastoni, Manuel Locatelli, Nicolo Barella and the electric Federico Chiesa.
But Kean and Raspadori have yet to convince Mancini of their ability to spearhead the attack, with the Juventus striker only coming on in the second half when his side was two goals and one man down.
In defence, Bastoni appears to be the natural successor to Giorgio Chiellini and started ahead of him, but Italy’s continued reliance on their battle scarred 37-year-old was clear to see when he came on for the second half and kept the Spanish attack at bay.
“He is the symbol of Italy, who were almost better with 10 men. The problem is that at his age he is clearly the best,” Gazzetta wrote.
Chiellini will be 38, and Bonucci 35, by the time the Qatar World Cup kicks off, and Italy will not want to rely too heavily on veterans.
The faith shown in Bastoni is a sign of Mancini looking to the future – but he is no closer to solving his striker conundrum.