STADIO OLIMPICO (Rome): It’s not time to pop open the celebratory prosecco quite yet, but the Italy Men’s National Team will go home feeling a weight has lifted after a night of exorcising their demons in the Eternal City.
Recent years have hardened Azzurri fans to the pains of a botched qualifying campaign, but Friday’s 5-2 win might heal a few of the scars that North Macedonia opened last year with that World Cup playoff shock.
Fast forward 18 months, one coaching change and plenty more besides, and Italy finally managed to beat their Balkan visitors as comfortably as they expected to on that fateful night in Palermo – with some nervy moments thrown in for good measure.
A draw will now do for Italy in their final qualifier against Ukraine in Leverkusen on Monday, while there is also a worst-case-scenario playoff route open to them thanks to their Nations League performance.
For Luciano Spalletti, a night of satisfying positives will be tempered by a second-half performance where the visitors managed to claw their way back into the game.
His side dominated 70% possession and were already 3-0 up by the break thanks to a Matteo Darmian header and a brace from the electric Federico Chiesa.
But that deficit was cut to one by a Jani Atanasov double before Giacomo Raspadori and Stephan El Shaarawy struck in the final 10 minutes to provide sweet relief.
Chiesa‘s virtuoso performance was critical and came despite suffering a knee-to-knee clash inside the opening two minutes, a worrying sight given his injury record.
However, it was the unlikely figure of Darmian who turned on the goal tap, as the unmarked Inter wing-back headed in from a corner in the 17th minute.
Raspadori, the latest Italian to audition for the centre-forward role, thought he had added a superb second soon after when he raced onto a Jorginho through ball and dinked a finish into the bottom corner, but the flag was up for offside.
Italy‘s dominance in possession was not wasted as they were proactive in their attacking, moving the ball forward quickly and committing men to overlaps to stretch a five-man Macedonian backline.
Chiesa was at the heart of it all, creating chances for himself and others with his restless movement, but there would be a moment of turmoil before the winger broke his duck for the night.
A handball in the box earned Italy a penalty five minutes before the break, which Spalletti said before the game he would “expect Jorginho to take” should it arrive despite the midfielder’s record of two costly misses in a row against Switzerland during the fateful World Cup qualifying campaign.
Everyone in the stands knew the context, but the decision of the home fans to chant “ooooh” in crescendo as Jorginho took his run-up was perhaps misjudged, as the midfielder skipped, shot and had his effort saved by Stole Dimitrievski to a chorus of boos.
It was a nightmare scenario for Jorginho on his first start for the national team since June, but he had Chiesa to thank for instantly dissolving any potential tension by battering a 25-yard shot into the bottom corner a minute later.
On the brink of half-time, things got even better for the Juventus star when an ambitious effort took a wicked deflection off a defender and looped beyond the rooted Dimitrievski.
The North Macedonian keeper was lively to deny Raspadori early in the second half, before one of the visitors’ three half-time changes gave them a lifeline out of nowhere as Jani Atanasov glanced a header past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
The impressive Dimitrievski denied both Giacomo Bonaventura and Darmian from point-blank range to keep it a two-goal game, the latter seemingly having spent the last week watching videos of Cafu in preparation for his night in Rome.
But just as things seemed to be trundling towards a conclusion, Atanasov decided to have a pop from range and his effort took a deflection off Francesco Acerbi before flying into the net.
With one goal in it and 15 minutes left on the clock, a game that had seemed the most routine of wins was suddenly hanging in the balance and a blanket of nervousness settled over the Olimpico crowd.
Enter Raspadori, who made a darting run to meet Nicolo Barella‘s pass – the Inter man’s second assist of the night – to fire low into the bottom corner off his left foot and get the tricolor flags waving once more.
Things got even better for the home crowd when substitute El Shaarawy, a favourite of the Roma-supporting contingent in the crowd, lashed home a fifth in stoppage time to restore a three-goal advantage and give Italy the handsome margin of victory they ultimately deserved.