Few positives for Italy after missing out on World Cup

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MILAN (AP) Over 180 minutes of soccer, Italy showed exactly why it is not going to the World Cup.

The national team was poor during a 2-0 loss to Argentina on Friday and needed a late penalty – awarded on video review – to salvage a 1-1 draw against England on Tuesday.

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Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958, and changes in the team were expected. But although interim coach Luigi Di Biagio handed debuts to 20-year-old players Federico Chiesa and Patrick Cutrone, much of the lineup for his first match in charge consisted of veterans held over from the qualifying campaign.

Chiesa was one of the few bright spots for Italy, which barely avoided going scoreless for a fourth straight match for the first time in the national team’s 108-year history.

The Fiorentina winger was brought on 10 minutes into the second half and impressed on the left flank, running at defenders. He was also the player who was fouled late, leading to Lorenzo Insigne’s equalizing penalty.

“We deserved the draw,” Chiesa said, “and it’s important for our morale and the atmosphere in the Italy camp.”

Chiesa, who turned 20 in October, and teenage goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma were the youngest Italy players on the field, and the duo could form the spine of the Azzurri for many years to come.

“I’m very happy because after making my debut I managed to play another match with the national team,” Chiesa said. “I always dreamed about making my debut for Italy but also to continue playing in the next matches.

Another positive for Italy was that the players seemed to have found their team spirit – which was sorely lacking in both World Cup playoff matches against Sweden and in several of the final matches of former coach Gian Piero Ventura’s tenure.

“I am happy because we showed no fear in front of 80,000 people, in an important stadium such as Wembley,” Di Biagio said. “Independent of the result, which is a positive one, I would have been satisfied with the performance anyway.

“What’s most important is the growth of these guys. These players have character, I can guarantee you that … even when we were losing they never stopped chasing the draw and then they tried to win. We certainly took a step forward.”

Despite the positive injection of youth, others who have performed well for their clubs continued to struggle in the national shirt.

Ciro Immobile has scored eight goals in his past nine matches for Lazio, but only once in his past 11 matches for Italy. On Tuesday, the 28-year-old forward missed a number of chances, including two in the opening three minutes against England at Wembley Stadium.

Insigne was also guilty of wasting opportunities before converting from the spot near the end.

The 26-year-old Napoli forward, who surprisingly was hardly used in the playoffs against Sweden, looked lost for most of the match against England. But then, somewhat out of nowhere, he almost scored in the 80th minute after linking up with Napoli teammate Jorginho.

Italy’s next two matches will be against France on June 1 and the Netherlands three days later, when the Azzurri should have a permanent coach. An announcement is slated for May 20.

Carlo Ancelotti, Antonio Conte and Roberto Mancini are the leading candidates, while Di Biagio could also be given the job fulltime.

“This has been a fantastic experience which has really given me a lot,” Di Biagio said. “These guys aren’t so mediocre as everyone wants to make out. They are Italy, they have to understand what they represent. We’ll see if it will be me or not, but that’s not a problem.”