A week ago today, history was made in Genoa. For the first time in the 80 years that they've been playing each other, Italy lost a match to the United States. For the first time ever they lost a match in the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. It was the second straight loss for the Azzurri, and some fans are worrying that the steady improvement we've seen since the embarrassment 21 months ago in South Africa has halted in its tracks.
But are these worries warranted or just knee-jerk reactions from a concerned fan base?
Let's start making one thing clear: losing to the US is no longer the mortal sin it was before the turn of the century. In the last 10 years, the US has made the quarterfinals of the World Cup, held its own against world giants like Germany, England and Spain, and even made the final of a major FIFA tournament.
That said, this game was by no means the disaster for Italy some have made it out to be. In fact, Italy played this game very, very well. They did more than enough to win. The Azzurri commanded the game with 61 percent possession, fired seven shots on goal, and took eight corner kicks. There were two main reasons that they didn't find the back of the net: the referee's assistants and Tim Howard.
The refereeing crew assigned to this game certainly did not do the Italians any favors in this match. Veteran Turkish ref Firat Aydinus and his assistants judged Italians offside nine times over the course of the match. Starting forwards Sebastian Giovinco and Alessandro Matri were visibly frustrated as the first half wore on as several dangerous runs called back for offside. Most notable was a goal scored by Matri, who was barely offside when he received a final pass from Claudio Marchisio. The assistants made some very close calls, and at least one of the calls against Giovinco looked questionable. But the team's timing improved as the match wore on, resulting in some dangerous chances that the Americans only just survived unscathed.
The encouraging thing about all these offside calls is just how close (and in some cases wrong) they really were. These weren't horribly mistimed, they were very close - and can be fixed. As Cesare Prandelli said after the game, "Playing once every three months is tricky." Even more tricky are these stand-alone midweek friendlies in the middle of the year, when everyone rushes in from their clubs, plays a game, and heads back to their club teams for the weekend fixtures. Timing issues like this can be fixed, especially during the extended summer training camp that teams hold before major tournaments like the European Championship.
The other reason the ball didn't find the net was one Tim Howard. Easily one of the top 10 goalkeepers in the world, the Everton man made seven saves last week, and made one or two more impressive stops on shots taken after Italy was caught offside. Of particular note was a 63rd minute save of a vicious shot by international debutant Fabio Borini, who forced another save from Howard 20 minutes later. If they had been facing a lesser keeper, the pressure the Italians were putting on the American goal would surely have finally put the ball into the back of the net.
All in all, this friendly can be considered a success by both sides. The Americans finally have a high-profile win to punctuate the beginning of the Jurgen Klinsmann era. Wednesday's game also announced Fabian Johnson as a dependable and versatile player going forward for Team USA. Jozy Altidore continued to show the good form he has had at AZ this season. He didn't menace Gianluigi Buffon himself very often, but his brilliant hold-up play in the box led directly to Clint Dempsey's goal. This was a good result for the US to carry into the beginning of World Cup qualifying in June.
On the Italian end of things, they looked dangerous all night. As said before, only the assistant's flag and some very good goalkeeping by Howard prevented them from scoring. The biggest issue Cesare Prandelli had to work out last week was who would be leading his front line during Euro 2012. With Antonio Cassano unavailable due to heart surgery and Giuseppe Rossi unlikely to be 100 percent recovered from a knee injury by the time the tournament starts, Italy's biggest question has been who will score their goals.
While no one found the back of the net tonight, Prandelli was shown some very good options. Most dangerous was Parma man Giovinco, who rode the hips of the American defenders all night long, squeezing his 5'4" frame into open space to latch onto feeds from the midfield. Matri looked less dangerous, but like Giovinco was unlucky when it came to the offside flag. Giampaolo Pazzini had a good chance snuffed out by Carlos Bocanegra and set up several other good chances in the half-hour that he was on the field. But the man who probably did the most for himself was Borini, who took his first cap and ran with it, forcing two difficult saves from Tim Howard. On top of all that, Prandelli was not carrying arguably his two best available strikers, Mario Balotelli and Pablo Osvaldo, as punishment for recent disciplinary problems while playing for their clubs.
Italy's loss to the United States was surprising. It was unprecedented. But it was not devastating. It was, in fact, an encouraging display that Italy had the edge of in every way except on the scoreboard. If the Italians play like this in Poland three months from now, they could make a deep run into Euro 2012.