The criticism was entirely for their own performance, the admiration almost entirely for the way Ireland rose to the occasion.
“It was supposed to be the game in which we found the extra man,” said Corriere dello Sport. “It turned out to be the game which cut away some assumptions, starting with the idea that Italy were invulnerable.”
Conte has rotated his squad more than any other manager in the tournament, and the verdict of the pundits is essentially that the replacements were not up to the job. Italy were too passive, and their squad players such as Federico Bernardeschi and Stefano Sturaro failed to match Ireland’s aggression.
Salvatore Sirigu in goal showed why he’s no longer first-choice for his club and the replacement forwards couldn’t make headway against determined defenders, although Lorenzo Insigne, the smallest man on the pitch, showed that he could prove to be a useful substitute.
Insigne himself explained that his role was “to break off the lines, as the Irish defenders are physically strong, so I went between the lines to cause trouble there”.
“No excuses,” said Leonardo Bonucci, who had one of his worst games for several seasons, although he, like Insigne, blamed the pitch for some of his mistakes.
The verdicts and ratings that everyone in Italy looks out for, players included, are in Gazzetta dello Sport, the distinctive pink newspaper you can spot in almost every bar and café in the land. Its marks are awarded sparingly — 6.5 is already good — so after a historic victory it is worth noting that every Irish outfield player scored more than his Italian opposite number.
The one exception was Darren Randolph ,“unrated” and listed as Ireland’s worst player to highlight Italy’s lack of goal threat rather than his performance — “Ireland didn’t have a worse player than him. Not his fault: Ours”.
In a great Irish team performance — rated 6.5 compared to Italy’s 5 — the standout players for the Gazzetta, all given a 7, were Stephen Ward, Robbie Brady, and their choice for man of the match Jeff Hendrick: “Impudent and insistent, the starting motor for Ireland’s attacking game.”
The Italians are used to Ireland’s physical strength, but their biggest surprise in this game was perhaps the way in which Ward and Seamus Coleman dominated on the flanks.
Italy were virtually unable to counter and penetrate against Coleman, while on Italy’s right side Ward got between Sturaro and Bernardeschi and would have done more damage but for Andrea Barzagli.
“We don’t dare to think what would have happened had Barzagli stayed on the bench,” commented Gazzetta. “Or rather we do: We would have been swamped.”
“It will be different against Spain,” was Bonucci’s promise to the fans yesterday. It will certainly be a completely different game, both tactically and physically.
The concern for Conte will be the way his team’s passing broke down.
Should Spain repeat the disruption that Martin O’Neill’s tactics achieved, then the Azzurri will definitely be looking blue.