The four-time world champions are looking to rebuild after their embarrassment in failing to reach Russia but the 2-0 defeat at the Etihad had an interim feel.
Italy take first steps post-World Cup failure against Argentina but a 'new era' is yet to begin
Recovering from a 60-year low is not an easy task. Nor is it accomplished immediately. For the first time since 1958, Italy have not qualified for a World Cup. Life in limbo and after the disastrous manager Gian Piero Ventura began at the Etihad Stadium on Friday. They lost 2-0.
There are mitigating factors. They were facing Argentina, albeit an Argentina shorn of the injured Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero and the omitted Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi. They selected a squad spliced together from different generations with Gianluigi Buffon, who went on to win his 176th cap, having played more internationals than 20 of his colleagues had between them.
“This team includes many who were on their debuts, others in their third or fourth caps,” said caretaker manager Luigi di Biagio. “It’s the start of a new era.”
Except it feels less an era than an interregnum, possibly before the return of the king across the water: Antonio Conte, named as the Italian FA’s preferred choice by the man leading their search, Alessandro Costacurta.
Di Biagio’s team were not embarrassed. Nor, however, did they offer the impression a brave new world has begun. Most of the inexperienced players were confined to cameos with Federico Chiesa the only debutant to start. The 40-year-old Buffon displayed his brilliance in a string of saves but the teenager Gianluigi Donnarumma was an unused substitute.
At the other end of the pitch, Italy failed to score for a third successive game. They have only two goals in six matches.
“I think we caused Argentina a lot of problems," said Lorenzo Insigne, who spurned the best chance by hitting the stanchion when it seemed simpler to score.
That drought has brought questions about the continued omission of Mario Balotelli, with Di Biagio appearing to show a caretaker’s reluctance to make major decisions by recalling a player who has not featured since the 2014 World Cup. But Balotelli averages almost a goal every other game for his country and has struck 22 times for Nice this season.
“We have important players already now and we have [Ciro] Immobile who is fighting for the European Golden Boot,” said Marco Parolo, praising his prolific Lazio teammate when asked about Balotelli.
In his own way, the midfielder is part of another problem: he was a worthy overachiever in Euro 2016 but will be 35 by the time Euro 2020 begins. Quite what he was doing beginning a friendly when Di Biagio could have imported more of his successful and gifted Under-21 team is a moot point: it suggested the interim appointment was intimidated by the prospect of a thrashing by Argentina.
So Lorenzo Pellegrini, 12 years Parolo’s junior, was his eventual replacement; at least, whereas Ventura had the kamikaze tactic of playing 4-2-4 against Spain, Di Biagio showed the sense to use three central midfielders.
There were also a couple of encouraging choices. Daniele Rugani, who made a goal-line clearance after another Buffon stop, looked a potential long-term partner for Leonardo Bonucci in the centre of defence.
And after Ventura turned both into cause celebres by overlooking them, Jorginho and Insigne started. While they lost possession for the two goals, club colleagues combined for many of Italy’s more promising moves and they offer the potential of more progressive play in the future and the chance Italy could start to mirror Serie A’s most exciting side.
Di Biagio was a former Roma and Inter footballer and Conte both played for and managed Juventus but there could be a Napolification of Italy.