Four-time world champions finding goals hard to come by and would benefit from the sort of talent Sunday's opponents are able to call on
Italy cast envious eye at Poland's strikers as goals continue to prove a problem
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 so far been a trial, and they face Poland on Sunday evening in Chorzow facing the prospect of relegation from the top tier of the competition, less than a year after the country suffered its most damaging loss of status for over half a century, with failure to qualify for the World Cup.
A new manager, the much decorated and respected 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.
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Mancini takes charge for the sixth time on Sunday night, 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 the two excruciating games against Sweden that had Italy, four times world champions, plunging to their historic low 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 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, the so-called "Atomic Ant", now 31 and deemed unsuitable for the national team by Mancini’s predecessors, Ventura and Antonio Conte 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 from Azzurri consideration. Mancini cannot be accused of not exploring a range of possibilities in his search for the marksman that might fire Italy out of their gloom.
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 as he looked ahead to the collision in Chorzow.
“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 Sunday night’s opponents they would be forgiven for a touch of envy. Poland have shortcomings as a national team, some of them exposed at a disappointing World Cup, where they finished bottom of their group, but cultivating top-class centre-forwards does not appear to be among them in the current generation.
Robert Lewandowski, the Bayern Munich striker, should play his 101st match for his country against Italy. The 30-year-old 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, and pushing for a place in Sunday's line-up is the young sensation Krzysztof Piatek, 23 years old and currently making Italians very familiar with his excellent instincts in the penalty area.
Piatek is Serie A’s top scorer, in this, 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.