A makeshift Italy side ended a disappointing 2018 with a 1-0 win against the United States of America in Genk thanks to substitute Matteo Politano finally finding a way past the magnificent performance of goalkeeper Ethan Horvath at the death.
The Americans named the youngest ever starting line-up in their modern history with an average of 22 years and 71 days, while youth was also prevalent in an Azzurri side which saw Stefano Sensi earn his first cap.
It was one such lively youngster who started the game brightly as Federico Chiesa brought a smart stop out of Horvath early before dragging a shot wide of the post before the 10 minute mark.
The Club Brugge goalkeeper was undoubtedly the star of the show on the night as he showcased his talents on a night when his side hardly troubled Italy offensively and did so again to keep out Leonardo Bonucci with a strong left hand.
Chiesa provided two fine crosses for Domenico Berardi and Emerson, neither which troubled Horvath as both failed to find the target when they should have done better.
Five minutes before the break, the Sassuolo forward tried his luck from range but the 23-year-old tipped it over and then saved his best save of the half for last when he somehow reacted to a dangerous fizzed in Marco Verratti free-kick which eluded everyone but the ‘keeper, who tipped it away at the last moment.
The frustration in front of goal at both ends continued in the second half, with the closest the Italy defence came to being troubled being a fan invasion which saw Bonucci and Francesco Acerbi being embraced by the supporter.
Bonucci almost had an assist shortly after that incident with a delicious through ball to put Kevin Lasagna in on goal but once more, Horvath was the hero, this time using his foot to make the save.
Substitute Vincenzo Grifo was next to try his luck against Horvath and, of course, was denied superbly by the goalkeeper but it was another player brought from the bench who finally beat him with the last kick of the game when Politano slotted beyond him in the 94th minute to end the year on a high note.
KEEP CAPPING CHIESA
It can be hard to take too much away from these kind of friendlies when both teams are trying new things. Fiorentina ace Chiesa took his successive starting streak for his country to five in Belgium and showed why that is the case. He excelled yet again and must now be one of the first names on Mancini’s team sheet, regardless of the circumstances.
YEAR END REPORT CARD
Mancini was always going to find it tough to change things too much after taking over an Italy side which failed to reach the World Cup. In his six months in charge, he has had just Nations League and friendly fixtures to deal with and the early signs are mixed with the jury certainly still out on him. He has overseen nine games and given plenty of new faces a go.
However, Italy have won just three of those games (his debut against Saudi Arabia and a win over Portugal being the others), failed to advance in the Nations League, have struggled for consistency defensively and most alarmingly perhaps, have scored eight times in nine games.
Massive improvements are needed in 2019 or the World Cup calamity will have been just the start of the peninsula’s problems.