A commanding first-half display by Italy condemned Northern Ireland to a 2-0 defeat in their opening World Cup qualifier in Parma.
An early goal from Domenico Berardi set the tone for the slick hosts, with Bailey Peacock-Farrell then beaten by Ciro Immobile at his near post.
Northern Ireland responded strongly after the break and went close through Gavin Whyte and Paddy McNair.
Ian Baraclough’s men play Bulgaria at home in their next qualifier.
That is next Wednesday night at Belfast’s Windsor Park, but before that at the same venue on Sunday, Baraclough must guide his squad through a friendly against USA.
Having replaced Michael O’Neill last year, the former NI Under-21 boss is still without a win during 90 minutes after nine matches in charge of the senior side.
This was always going to be a difficult match in which to get that first victory, with Italy, resurgent since Roberto Mancini took over in 2018, now unbeaten in 23 matches.
The four-time World Cup winners have still never lost a home World Cup qualifier, with Thursday’s win adding to the 10 victories they secured in 10 Euro 2020 qualifiers.
With Switzerland beating Bulgaria 3-1 earlier in the day’s other Group C match, next Wednesday’s encounter at Windsor now assumes even more importance for Northern Ireland as they bid to reach a World Cup finals for the first time since 1986.
If he doesn’t play on Sunday, Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis will hope to break Peter Shilton’s British international caps record against the Bulgarians, after equalling it with his 125th appearance in Parma.
Berardi-inspired hosts smother visitors early on
Baraclough was bold with his formation in Parma, setting his team up in a 3-5-2 that saw Paddy McNair making up a back three with Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart, and Gavin Whyte joining Josh Magennis in a front two.
They looked energetic while keeping a solid shape in what was a promising opening 10 minutes, but the Italians soon found their rhythm and produced a dominant display of incisive passing that Northern Ireland were not able to contend with.
Lazio forward Immobile delivered the first warning of what was to come when he found space in between Evans and Cathcart but failed to connect with his volley, allowing Peacock-Farrell to save easily.
The opening goal arrived in the 14th minute. With McNair drifting too far forward, Berardi was able to run in behind wing-back Stuart Dallas and cut inside before guiding an angled shot past Peacock-Farrell at his near post.
With Northern Ireland failing to close him down quickly enough, Berardi took control of the game, creating excellent chances for Immobile and Emerson Palmieri which they failed to take.
If the Northern Ireland keeper could have done better with the first goal, he certainly should have done better for the second, letting an Immobile shot go past him at the near post after the Italians broke well when a Northern Ireland attack broke down.
Spirited response provides hope for NI
While playing with two forwards looked like a positive signal of intent from Baraclough, in truth both Whyte and Magennis were regularly dropping deep for most of the first half, perhaps in a bid to prevent Manuel Locatelli dictating the play from deep in midfield as he was.
It looked bleak for Northern Ireland at the break, with Mancini’s side suggesting they could create chances at will, but Baraclough’s men clearly regrouped in the changing room and were a much better side in the second half.
They got on the front foot right from the restart and the front two combined in a meaningful way for the first time after 47 minutes when Magennis flicked on to Whyte who found the side-netting with a volley.
Immobile headed wide from a good position for Italy before Whyte had an even better chance, latching onto a poor backpass but failing to shift his feet in time and allowing AC Milan’s Gianluigi Donnarumma to come off his line and save.
From the next period of play, a good left-wing cross found Smith at the back post but he opted to volley with his left foot and failed to get enough power in his shot to trouble Donnarumma.
Northern Ireland had clearly played their way into the game, with Evans whipping in a dangerous cross and captain Davis going close with a volley before McNair missed their best chance of the night with four minutes left.
Davis found him with a clever pass inside and the Middlesbrough and, who has been impressive in recent matches for club and country, was sloppy with his shot and sent it over the crossbar.
So a shock result was too much of an ask for Northern Ireland in Parma, but Baraclough must use the second-half performance as a launch pad for Sunday’s friendly and – most importantly – the visit of Bulgaria for the second qualifier next Wednesday.