Italy faced Ireland at Craven Cottage on Saturday evening, Fulham’s picturesque home hosting the Azzurri in a match coming just before the final 23-man World Cup squads must be named. As such, the friendly encounter against Martin O’Neill’s side gave a number of fringe players a chance to stake their claim for a place in Brazil.
Cesare Prandelli’s starting lineup showed that would indeed be the case, with the likes of Matteo Darmian, Gabriel Paletta and Ciro Immobile all getting the opportunity to impress the former Fiorentina coach. Another seeking to retain his place was Giuseppe Rossi, the striker aiming to show he had regained his fitness after missing four months with a knee injury.
The 27-year-old managed to do just that, turning in a 71-minute performance in which he showed no lingering after-effects from his most recent surgery. Sadly, as the Azzurri recovered one player they would lose another, a cruel blow ruling Riccardo Montolivo out of this summer’s tournament completely.
Crumbling under a clumsy tackle from Alex Pearce, the Milan midfielder was rushed to hospital where a broken tibia was later confirmed, per FootballItalia. The 29-year-old is a long-time favourite of Prandelli and was almost certain to make the trip, meaning there is now a space for a player who otherwise would perhaps not have made the trip.
Chief among the candidates is surely Marco Verratti, the 21-year-old who has often found himself outside the coach’s plans. He too was given the chance to impress against Ireland, and he has likely played his way onto Prandelli’s final squad list in light of an eventful evening.
Named to the starting XI alongside Paris Saint-Germain team-mate Thiago Motta, the young star had made a keen impression after just three minutes. Shortly after he had already picked out an excellent run by Darmian on the right flank, he would provide the first real chance of the game for Italy.
Two seasons ago, Verratti helped his home-town club Pescara earn promotion to Serie A, part of a thrilling attacking side under the tutelage of Zdenek Zeman in which Immobile was the leading scorer. Now the 24-year-old is the Serie A top scorer and set to move to Borussia Dortmund, per Cindy Garcia-Bennett of the Press Association (h/t Daily Mail) but here he proved to have lost none of his understanding with his former team-mate.
Verratti found himself with time and space on the edge of the Irish box, quickly spotting Immobile in the area, and he picked him out with an excellent pass (shown above and below courtesy of MatchHighlight.com). Unfortunately the inexplicably unmarked striker’s first touch was poor, allowing David Forde to smother the ball before he could shoot.
They would link up once again before the break, and again it would only be poor control from Immobile which denied the Azzurri a goal. Verratti’s passing was excellent throughout the 90 minutes, stats site WhoScored.com showing he completed 96 per cent of his 107 attempts, enjoying more touches of the ball (121) than any other player.
He also made a solid defensive contribution, the same source showing he made one tackle and three interceptions, while not turning the ball over at all in the entire match. It was impressive to see him carry his excellent domestic form—highlighted by the above Squawka graphic—onto the international stage, particularly in the difficult circumstances which blighted this match.
With Andrea Pirlo remaining on the bench, Verratti showed that perhaps he can step in for the Juventus star should he need a rest, providing some insurance in the tiring conditions Italy will face in Brazil. There remain doubts over the temperament of a player who was booked no less than 11 times in 2013-14, but he showed incredible maturity in his performance as the Azzurri were clearly rattled by the loss of Montolivo.
Italy may not yet be handing Verratti the keys to the midfield, but against Ireland the PSG man showed he is more than capable of steering them on in the absence of others.