Italy gave new coach Antonio Conte a flying start on Thursday, taking 10 minutes to equal their goal tally for the entire World Cup as they won a friendly in Bari against a depleted Netherlands, who were playing their first game under Guus Hiddink.
Mario Balotelli, dropped by Conte after the maverick striker’s World Cup performance drew barely-veiled criticism from his own team mates, was scarcely missed as the lively forward line of Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza pestered the Dutch rearguard in a convincing 2-0 win.
Conte, however, will be wary of reading too much into the performance as the contest effectively ended in the 10th minute when the Dutch were reduced to 10 men and Italy scored their second goal.
Netherlands, semi-finalists at the World Cup, were missing Arjen Robben, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart in the first match of 67-year-old Hiddink’s second stint in charge.
The impressive 48,000 crowd in Bari had barely settled into their seats when Immobile latched onto a long ball over the Dutch defence, swept past goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and scored into an empty net after only three minutes.
Daniele De Rossi converted a penalty seven minutes later after debutant forward Zaza was fouled by Bruno Martins Indi, who was harshly sent off, after the Dutch were caught out again.
“Apart from the result, I wanted to see a response from the boys and it was certainly positive in terms of effort, aggression and the football ideas we want to bring forward,” Conte told Rai television.
“There are mature players here and also youngsters who can become great champions. There is a very long way to go, but as I always say, winning helps.”
Italy were reeling from their first-round exit at the World Cup when they managed only two goals in the entire campaign, their worst tally since 1966.
Cesare Prandelli, whose contract ran until 2016, immediately quit and said that Italians had lost interest in their national team, who have won four World Cups.
Determined to prove otherwise, the famously competitive Conte immediately installed the 3-5-2 system he used at Juventus, where he won three Serie A titles in as many years in charge.
Italy, dominating the match against off-colour opponents, could have added to their tally before halftime.
Cillessen stopped Zaza’s side-footed effort after Immobile had set him up, then Zaza returned the compliment by chesting the ball down for Immobile who fired over the bar.
Robin van Persie sent a low drive across the face of goal in a rare Dutch attack early in the second half, but Italy were closer to a third when substitute Mattia Destro headed wide from Manuel Pasqual’s inviting cross.
Italy never let up and were pressing deep into the Dutch half even in the last 10 minutes of the game.
“More than a special team, I had special men tonight,” continued…