The Italian national team took the field against Finland for their final friendly before the 2016 European Championship with questions left to answer. There were still major doubts as to what the team's best setup was in midfield, as well as on the forward line.
When Dutch referee Bas Nijhuis blew his whistle for the final time, the Azzurri had a 2-0 victory—the first time they had won consecutive friendlies since 2014. An excellent defensive performance and a sterling game from Antonio Candreva saw Italy walk out winners, but the uncertainties still remain for manager Antonio Conte with a week left before their Euro 2016 opener.
Let's get what is certain out of the way now: This defence is going to be scary.
The so-called "Juventus bloc," made up of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and centre-backs Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, has been rock-solid in both of Italy's friendly tests. For the second straight game, they didn't allow a shot on target. Scotland and Finland combined for two shots total in the two matches.
It didn't matter that Buffon's deputy, Salvatore Sirigu, was between the sticks on Monday. The back three was dominant. If Conte wanted to get Sirigu some work after not seeing much game action this year at Paris Saint-Germain, he'd be disappointed. The 'keeper didn't touch the ball in open play until there were 20 minutes on the clock, and you could count on one hand the number of times he had to handle the ball over the 90 minutes.
The back three themselves spent as much time in the Finnish half of the field as they did their own. Chiellini bombed forward on several occasions, winning a few free-kicks and supplying a couple of dangerous balls—and he still found time to deliver one of those bone-crunching tackles he's so famous for in the 12th minute. Barzagli didn't go quite as far but made himself available as an outlet to keep possession throughout the match.
Most noteworthy of the three, though, was Bonucci. Within 20 seconds of the opening whistle he had launched a long diagonal ball in Stephan El Shaarawy's direction. The pass didn't quite connect, but before a minute had elapsed, Bonucci was at it again, threading an excellent long pass along the grass to Ciro Immobile, who wasted it by straying offside.
We could be seeing a lot more of this. With so many questions as to where the creativity is going to come from for Italy, Conte may rely on Bonucci, who is easily the best ball-handling centre back in the game today, to use his passing skills to bypass the midfield and get the attack going that way.
It's the best idea they have going, because the midfield is still a big question mark.
Of course, at full strength it would be a formidable unit. But it has been shot through with injuries. Claudio Marchisio tore his ACL against Palermo in April, and Marco Verratti lost his months-long battle to recover from a sports hernia and opted for surgery in early May.
That has left Conte with few options. He's opted to go for experience in the middle of the park with the likes of Daniele De Rossi and Thiago Motta rather than give the keys of the team to youngsters such as Napol's Jorginho, who was left at home when the final roster was announced a week ago.
As it is, the midfield is dangerously low on creativity. There are some proficient passers in the team, like Motta, who led Ligue 1 in average passes per game this season according to WhoScored.com. But there is no one who can unlock a defence the way Verratti can, or as Andrea Pirlo did for so many years for the national team.
The closest they have in that regard is Candreva, who sparkled on Monday. Moving up and down the right flank at will, the Lazio man earned and converted a penalty in the 27th minute to open the scoring, and in the second half, he sent in a sizzling cross that De Rossi powered home with his head.
But beyond him, the midfield struggled to produce danger. Conte told his post-match press conference (h/t Football Italia) that the team needed to "improve the tempo," and he was right. Much of the first half saw the ball move far too slowly. Interestingly, when Motta was replaced by De Rossi, the ball began to ping around with a bit more speed, and the Azzurri created some of their best chances of the night.
Only De Rossi managed to seal those opportunities. For the most part, Italy's forwards were as wasteful on Monday as they were against Scotland last week.
Italy put 21 shots on goal on Monday, but only seven of them found the mark, and some of the ones that did were tame efforts easily saved.
Particularly putrid was Immobile.
Two years ago, when Conte arrived at Coverciano, Immobile was coming off a season where he had won the capocannoniere with Torino and secured a big-money move to Borussia Dortmund. He scored the first goal of the Conte era against the Netherlands and looked to have finally arrived.
Now he's a man in search of a team, having been given up on by Dortmund and Sevilla. He impressed after returning to Torino for a loan stint in the January transfer window, but he couldn't do anything right on Monday. He was caught offside twice in the early going, and in the 10th minute he had an embarrassing moment when he whiffed at a loose ball in the box that he should have at the very least put on target.
His passing attempts were abysmal, either too hard or badly off target. In the 59th minute, he tried to cross the ball but skewed it so badly that it was out for a goal-kick almost before it passed the near post.
By contrast, Simone Zaza had a good game. His work rate was excellent, and he got himself into some good positions. He was unlucky not to get his name on the scoresheet in the 77th minute, when Immobile relayed a Chiellini through ball to him. Finnish goalkeeper Lucas Hradecky didn't save Zaza's shot so much as get hit by it.
He also dropped back to help defensively and helped clear a corner with an acrobatic bicycle kick midway through the second half. He outshone his strike partner, and now he could be the man Conte pairs with Graziano Pelle when play begins.
While certainly a confidence booster, this game confirmed that what was up in the air after the Scotland game still hasn't come down. Italy are still going to have to rely on their defence while they find the right combinations farther up the field.
Of course, their opponents when the Euros begin will be more difficult than the teams they've faced in the last week. Belgium are not going to be held to a single shot, and though Finland play a similar style to Sweden, they don't have a transcendent player like Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front.
That being said, Italy are not going to be a fun team to play in this tournament—but they'll be a heart attack to watch for their fans. It's going to be very difficult to score against this defence, but unless someone emerges as a go-to creator or finisher, they'll struggle to win as well.
As they go to France, the Azzurri are largely a mystery. The only way to answer them is to play the games.