Northern Ireland began their FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualification campaign with a disappointing 2-0 defeat to group favourites Italy in Parma tonight.
The four-times world champions, with their attacking verve and slick passing, did the damage in the first half with clinical finishes from Domenico Berardi and Ciro Immobile.
It has been over 60 years since Northern Ireland scored against Italy and the wait goes on, however they had their chances in the second half in the European Qualifying Group C encounter at the Stadio Ennio Tardini.
Northern Ireland started brightly. Gavin Whyte produced some trickery and got a shot off eight yards out but it was blocked by the home defence. Paddy McNair’s sharp delivery from the resulting corner kick was also cleared.
Bailey Peacock-Farrell made a comfortable save from Immobile on 11 minutes but was picking the ball out of the back of the net a few minutes later.
Alessandro Florenzi found the lively Berardi down the right. He beat the offside trap, cut inside and sped towards goal before slamming the ball high into the net from an angle to make it 1-0 to Italy.
The Northern Ireland keeper was called into action again minutes later when Berardi played a pinpoint pass to Immobile, however Peacock-Farrell was quickly off his line to smother the forward’s effort.
Berardi continued to torment the visitors and curled another lovely cross to Emerson at the back post but his header went inches wide of the upright.
The Azzurri’s forwards and attacking midfielders, with their clever one-twos, were on the front foot at this stage and on 24 minutes Florenzi had a long range strike which flew just over the bar.
On 39 minutes Italy, who have never lost a home World Cup qualifier, made it 2-0 thanks to a swift counter attack. A rare first half Northern Ireland raid on the Italian goal was broken up and the ball fed to Immobile down the left. The striker raced forward, with Craig Cathcart unable to catch him, and fired the ball low into the corner of the net from 15 yards.
The rock solid Italian defence, expertly marshalled by captain Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, making his 100th appearance for his country, never looked like being breached in the first half.
After the break, however, Northern Ireland almost got in when a Josh Magennis flick-on was met by Whyte whose rasping effort from 12 yards found the side netting.
Immobile headed wide before Baraclough’s boys continued to push. Whyte pounced on a poor back pass from Manuel Locatelli but his effort was blocked by Italian keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma who moments later pushed away a close range strike from Michael Smith.
Emerson cut inside and curled a shot just wide of the upright before another Smith drive was deflected over the top down the other end. Moments later Magennis got on the end of a Jonny Evans cross and the striker’s flick was palmed away by Donnarumma.
Steven Davis, who equalled Peter Shilton's British international caps record of 125 on the night, was more influential in the second half with some neat, incisive passing.
Stuart Dallas broke down the left and fed substitute George Saville but the Italian defence snuffed out the attack.
Davis let fly in the 83rd minute, although his strike was comfortably dealt with by Donnarumma.
Then the captain produced a neat reverse pass to the onrushing McNair who blasted over the top with the goal gaping.
Immobile had a chance to score again as the game petered out but he could only clip the ball into the side netting from an angle.
Northern Ireland will now look to get off the mark in the World Cup 2022 qualifiers when they face Bulgaria, who lost 3-1 at home to Switzerland in their opening qualifier earlier today, in Belfast next Wednesday.
Before that, however, they have a friendly against USA at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park on Sunday.
Northern Ireland: Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Michael Smith, Stuart Dallas, Craig Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Corry Evans, Paddy McNair, Steven Davis (captain), Alistair McCann, Gavin Whyte, Josh Magennis. Substitutes: (used) George Saville, Shayne Lavery, Jordan Thompson, Kyle Lafferty; (unused) Conor Hazard, Liam Hughes, Conor McLaughlin, Matthew Kennedy, Daniel Ballard, Niall McGinn, Shane Ferguson, Ciaron Brown.
Italy: Gianluigi Donnarumma, Alessandro Florenzi, Emerson, Giorgio Chiellini (captain), Leonardo Bonucci, Marco Verratti, Manuel Locatelli, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Domenico Berardi, Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne. Substitutes: Salvatore Sirigu (GK), Alessio Cragno (GK), Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Leonardo Spinazzola, Matteo Pessina, Andrea Belotti, Vincenzo Grifo, Francesco Acerbi, Nicolo Barella, Federico Bernardeschi, Federico Chiesa, Gianluca Mancini.