Italy won their third straight match Tuesday night as they dispatched Denmark 3-1 in a sparsely filled San Siro. Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli proved to be the decisive figure yet again for the Azzurri, assisting on the first goal and scoring one himself to seal the three points for Cesare Prandelli’s men.
Prandelli deployed the same formation that he used last Friday against Armenia, eschewing the 3-5-2 in favor of his tried and true 4-3-1-2 but not without a few personnel changes. On the flanks Prandelli swapped out Christian Maggio and Domenico Criscito for Ignzaio Abate and Federico Balzaretti, while in the middle of defense Giorgio Chiellini came in for his Juventus teammate Leonardo Bonucci. The midfield and attack remained the same, with Balotelli partnering Pablo Osvaldo in attack.
Italy were first off the mark thanks to an excellent long range strike from Riccardo Montolivo in the 33rd minute. After receving a pass from Claudio Marchisio, Balotelli smartly laid the ball off into the path of Montolivo, who then lashed a shot passed a frozen Stephan Andersen.
It only took four minutes for the Azzurri to double their lead. After a cleared corner, Andrea Pirlo picked the ball up on the right, skipped past a defender and sent in a pinpoint cross that Daniele De Rossi buried via a powerful header. Despite the 2-0 scoreline, the Italians let the Danes slowly back into the game and were punished for it just before the halftime whistle. A cross in from the right was met on the volley by William Kvist, smashing the ball past a helpless Morgan De Sanctis.
The second half did not start well for the Azzurri either. Barely a minute into the second half, Osvaldo was sent off for elbowing Nicolai Stockholm in the face. Despite the setback, Italy found the back of the net yet again eight minutes later when Balotelli latched onto a Pirlo long ball, flicking it on the volley between Andersen’s legs and into the net.
After Italy’s third goal of the evening, the Azzurri made sure to protect their lead as the Danes pushed for two more goals, coming close on more than one occasion. Denmark’s push for a draw can be reflected by the stats; they enjoyed 63% possession and out shot Italy 16-10. The critical difference is that Italy had more shots on target (six) than the Danes (four), with Italy converting on three of those attempts. Denmark meanwhile had 10 of their shots miss the target completely. Were it not for Danish profligacy in front of goal, the result could have been quite different.
The one concern Italy can take from the international break is a lack of consistency among the forward line. Balotelli is more than capable of carrying a team (see the Euro 2012 semifinal versus Germany), however, he can be maddeningly inconsistent. The same goes for Osvaldo; despite scoring three goals in four qualifying matches, he was poor against the Danes, missing an excellent chance in addition to getting foolishly sent off (not for the first time, mind you). Despite his ability to score some spectacular goals, the Argentine-born striker still has a habit of missing sitters.
To be fair, Italy’s forward options are for the most part relatively young, with the average age of the strikers currently called up being 23.8 years old. This doesn’t even factor in the likes of Lorenzo Insigne or Ciro Immobile, two players who will no doubt have a role to play in the next two years for the senior side. Combine the likes of Antonio Di Natale and possibly Antonio Cassano being phased out with the integration of Stephan El Shaarawy and Mattia Destro, the main striker corps will continue to become younger. Relying on a youthful attack will mean inconsistent results up top in the short-term, but nevertheless, it will pay big dividends come 2014.