Belfast, Bestie and barn doors

As the city that produced George Best, Belfast is familiar with dribbling wizardry. And the locals may have been expecting more of the same from Italy’s Antonio Cassano on Friday evening.

Instead, Italy’s most gifted player was a marginal figure in the Euro 2012 qualifier at Windsor Park against an adequate but hardly adventurous Northern Ireland side.

The Azzurri may have boasted players of great technical quality, but would have needed a little sprinkling of Fantantonio star dust on Best’s old patch to break down the well-organised home defence.

There were a couple of tempting crosses – one in particular for Giampaolo Pazzini, which the striker should have volleyed home - and a darting header which was turned over the bar, but no tricks and feints to draw defenders into challenges and create that extra space behind the backline.

Not once did the Samp man get to the by-line inside the area and then swivel back to set-up a chance or angled a shot into the corner in trademark fashion.

We have seen that move so many times in Serie A, but it never really looked like happening at Windsor Park, which once again suggests all the fancy stuff will never really transfer onto the international stage.

Cesare Prandelli may have defended his star turn, but the coach could only lament once more the lack of alternatives - and the dearth of attacking talent was certainly visible in the mediocre performances from Simone Pepe and Marco Borriello.

There isn’t a barn-door in the world big enough for either player to have hit on Friday night –especially the Juventus winger, who should probably have been jettisoned after South Africa.

If Prandelli is to persist with a three-man front-line then the rest of the team needs to be confident that the forward trio will be clinical enough to kill off the opposition – Pazzini flanked by Cassano and Giuseppe Rossi already looks a lot more positive.

The only player who would have got the seal of approval from Bestie would probably have been Andrea Pirlo, but unfortunately Pepe was never on the same wavelength as the deep-lying playmaker – either dropping too short when there was space in behind or galloping off when he needed to hold his position.

It was no wonder that the AC Milan man looked in the opposition direction towards Cassano whenever he could, but the Irish eventually cut off that route, leaving Pirlo with few options when in possession.

Apart from Pirlo, the midfield was its usual mix of mediocrity and ineptitude.

Daniele De Rossi’s physical (for an Italian) approach looks to have finally caught up with the AS Roma schemer - who quite frankly looks worn out - while Stefano Mauri is a run-of-the-mill player albeit in the form of his life at club level.

The defence was as shaky as an old tree and all that hand waving by Giorgio Chiellini and De Rossi could have found a more sharp-eyed referee pointing to the penalty spot.

The whole team still looks uncoordinated and vulnerable when the game is taken to them as occurred when Northern Ireland eventually came to the conclusion that this was no Italy side to fear.

Of course, two wins and a draw from the first three group games keeps Prandelli’s men in pole position especially after Serbia’s defeat to Estonia.

Tuesday’s meeting between the sides in Genoa marks the moment Italy can go some way to removing their main rivals from the fray but they will need to start finding that barn door.  

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