One Italian national team played a match yesterday, and the results were quite dispiriting. With a seemingly safe 2-0 aggregate lead over Belarus, the Italian U-21 club found a way to lose 3-1 in the return match and be eliminated from the UEFA U-21 championship. The practical result is that the club not only will not have a chance at another U-21 championship, but has been eliminated from the 2012 Olympics. In a year when the senior club was embarrassed at the World Cup and fans looked to the youth system for hope, this was a very poor result.
On Friday, the Italians convincingly beat Belarus 2-0 on goals by AS Roma’s Chuka Stefano Okaka and Genoa’s Mattia Destro. With a two goal lead and playing a country with little soccer tradition and two players currently playing top-flight football (including Cagliari’s Mikhail Sivakov), Italy was the heavy favorite.
But Belarus sent a message early on a goal that was as much brilliance by Vladimir Yurchenko as it was incompetence by keeper Vito Mannone. Mannone tried to gather a shot in the third minute but lost the ball, which led to an empty net goal. Not a good result for the keeper who last week became the latest Arsenal keeper to complain about playing time.
And Belarus did not waste any time putting more pressure on Italy, with Yurchenko scoring again two minutes later off a field-length pass. However, even down 2-0 after five minutes, Italy could have advanced with a single goal (away goals being the second tiebreaker). However, both teams played even for the rest of regulation. In the overtime period, however, Oleg Veretio made the young Azzurri pay by slipping the third goal past Mannone, putting Belarus ahead for the 3-2 victory on aggregate.
Italy had their chances in this match – chip shots by Destro (30th minute), Okaka (77th minute, 100th minute) and Ranocchia (final minute) either hit the post or were right at the keeper, and scoring just one of those quality chances would have advanced Italy. Their defense was not helped by the loss of captain De Silvestri to suspension, but better play should be expected from both the backline and especially the keeper.
Where does the U-21 program go from here? I wouldn’t be surprised if this was Pierluigi Casiraghi’s last match as the team’s manager, and the club will have to lament the missed chance to play across the continent in the 2012 Olympics. But all is not lost for the Italian youth. The U-19 club has advanced in its tournament and is looking like a favorite to win. Plus the U-21 has some definite talent that will be ready for the next World Cup. Overall, this loss is a set back for Italy but not a definitive one.