‘Allergic to errors’. That is how Andrea Pirlo, formerly Italy’s midfield darling, once described national team coach Antonio Conte. After 87 minutes of misplaced passes, fractured attacks and one shot on target, the 46-year-old must have witnessed Eder’s wonderful late winner against Sweden through swollen eyes and a bout of sneezing.
This was an Italy side who had emerged from the first round of games with the most credit to their name. Each of the pre-tournament favourites – France, Germany, Spain, England, Portugal and Belgium – had flattered to deceive to varying degrees. The latter of that sextuplet had fallen to Leonardo Bonucci, to Emanuele Giaccherini and to Graziano Pelle. With the most professional of performances in a competition dominated by imperfect sides, Italy had suddenly become a contender again.
Four days later, this was a different outfit – a group lacking confidence and concentration. Sweden were dreadful, but Italy struggled. One moment of true individual inspiration spared them, and progress from the group stages was secured; they join hosts France in the last-16.
As incisive as Italy were against Belgium, they were insipid in Toulouse. The counter-attacking verve which overcame the Red Devils was a distant memory, replaced with mistakes, uncertainty and a distinct lack of creativity. Until Eder burst through the Sweden defence to record yet another memorable late goal at this summer’s tournament, Italy had looked remarkably ordinary.
Like any other country, they had their preparation for the tournament affected by injuries. Claudio Marchisio was ruled out. Marco Verratti was sidelined. What should have been one of the most talented collection of midfielders in France would now feature Marco Parolo as a member of the starting XI.
Over in New York, Pirlo must have been lamenting his omission from the selected 23. “I wasn’t happy to be left out but I have to accept the choice of the coach,” said the 37-year-old. He had helped his nation to become world champions in 2006, and European runners-up in 2012. He would not be afforded the opportunity to influence a third major tournament. No Pirlo, no party, as the phrase goes.
Conte explained that the midfielder had to “pay the consequences in footballing terms” for his move to Major League Soccer from Juventus. An uninspired spell in America thus far certainly supported his decision. But against Sweden, a player of Pirlo’s calibre and skill set was sorely missed.
No midfielder in blue made more than 37 passes (Daniele De Rossi made the most). Only one player – Eder – created more than one chance. Not one of the 28 players on the field played a single accurate through ball. Italy failed to dominate a midfield battle up against Kim Kallstrom and Albin Ekdal. Pirlo, armed with an unrivalled passing range and calm in possession, would surely have made a difference.
As it happened, he needn’t. Not in this encounter anyway. Eder took it upon himself to ensure Italy’s safe progression to the knockout rounds. For Conte and his players, it is mission accomplished; Group E is almost certainly won. Whether the Azzurri can rely on instances of independent brilliance during moments of similar difficulty is another matter, however.
“You have to remember Italy have good players, too,” said Pirlo earlier this month, discussing Italy’s chances of success. “Our defensive line is very strong and we have an attack that can score against anyone.” That has most certainly proved true thus far, and it could well be enough to venture deep into this tournament. The midfield, much as it was against Sweden, and without the control of a Pirlo, remains conspicuous by its absence.