THE WISDOM of Scotland taking on such an exacting assignment as facing a Euro 2016-bound Italy in their neighbouring Malta was left open to question by a defeat and display that will quickly fade from the memory.
Gordon Strachan wanted to learn about his players but all he will have been made aware of is how arduous they can find it against top-tier opponents.
A blistering strike by Pelle in the 56th minute made Italy only the second team – after England – that Strachan’s team has lost to in the 12 friendlies he has taken on across his three-year tenure.
Scotland, nursing the hurt of being the only British Isles international team not to make it to Euro 2016, won’t be left too wounded by a defeat by a country Scotland have only beaten once – more than half a century ago – in 11 meetings. The comfort to be drawn from being utterly outplayed by Antonio Conte’s side is that the margin of defeat did not reflect their opponents’ superiority in every aspect.
There is often a worrying pre-match pattern to Scotland’s square goes with the games grandees. We are told how they aren’t at all what they were once, with the claim backed up by poor recent form and the absence of some stellar names. All these boxes were ticked ahead of the meeting with Italy courtesy of Antonio Conte’s side having come off a 4-1 thumping by Germany to be without a win in four, having various injury struggles and having only once scored more than two goals in their past 34 games. The attendant worry about such opposition downgrading is that it can so often be a precursor to them rediscovering their mojo at Scotland’s expense.
It certainly felt that way in an entirely one-sided first half in Malta’s Ta’ Qali Stadium. A period in which an Italian side that was a class apart harried and hemmed-in Strachan’s side and had a hatful of near things. Scotland, meanwhile, didn’t have a single shot on or off target. It felt like they had less than even that as the Italians played with the purpose that might be entitled to be expected of a team tuning up for a major finals that are less than a fortnight away.
Strachan had talked up the freshmen within his group and his desire to give them international experience but it was no surprise that there was only one young debutant in his starting line-up in the form of Callum Paterson. The 21-year-old Hearts right-back was withdrawn at half-time but that was probably down to the fact he was struggling with a back complaint. He was no more exposed than any other member of a backline that creaked throughout.
The fact that Italy could not convert any first-half opportunities provided an indication of why little is being made of their prospects in Euro 2016 that has them in a devilishly awkward group alongside Belgium, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland. Not that this was all down to their wastefulness. The only stirring impression made by any Scotland player came with a brilliant double save by David Marshall in the seventh minute. He showed cat-like reflexes both to beat the ball away low to his right when Antonio Candreva took a long run up and hammered in a 20-yard free-kick and then to get up and get down to throw himself across goal and block the close-range follow-up by Emanuele Giaccherini.
The Bologna midfielder found all sorts of ways to squander glaring opportunities across the next half-hour as Scotland were raided down the left so often their back four became a back five with left midfielder Ikechi Anya constantly required to retreat to his penalty box to help out Charlie Mulgrew.
A cut-back from the left touchline led to the goal opening up for Giaccherini but he blootered ball high into night sky from 12 yards. He then rampaged through on goal to be found by a sweet lob from Daniele De Rossi only to slash an effort wide of target, with a curious propensity of the Italian to want to absolutely whack the ball, leading to some other wonky radar efforts from a side using Scotland as target practice.
The only oasis in a desert of a performance was a sequence of more than 40 passes by Scotland in the tenth minute. Even then, it sounds better than it was in reality for there was little purpose within the possession. Otherwise, midfielder sitters Darren Fletcher and James McArthur could get no foothold in the contest.
In fairness, Scotland vainly stuck at their tasks on a difficult night but there never seemed any likelihood that they would emerge unscathed and the inevitable fatal damage came in the 56th minute. The goal was a mix of error and elegance, the former supplied by substitute Steven Fletcher who trod on the ball, fell and gifted it to the Italian. With a couple of sleek passes in a move involving De Rossi and Citadin Eder, the Southampton striker Gaziano Pelle was teed up. He produced a ferocious finish from the edge of the area.
With the feeling of job done for the Italians, Conte made a raft of substitutions and, 70 minutes in, Scotland succeeded in winning a corner. Then, 13 minutes from time, they even bettered that with a shot on goal that followed Matt Ritchie being slipped in behind the Italian backline by Steven Naismith. A glorious chance for what would have been a steal of an equaliser, the Bournemouth attacker opted for power over precision and his effort whizzed past. Unlike the 90 minutes Scotland endured in the Mediterranean last night.