By Dan Billingham
Italy’s under-17s put down an impressive marker in their bid to match their final appearance in last year’s European championship by beating Germany 3-1 in their opening match in the 2019 finals in Ireland.
Inter striker Sebastiano Esposito, who has already appeared for his club’s first team in the UEFA Europa League, was the standout player in a high-quality encounter, firing a stunning free-kick to put the Italians 2-1 ahead in the 80th minute and having a major contribution to their third goal in stoppage time.
It had all started so well for the beaten Germans. Coach Michael Feichtenbeiner urged his players to treat the tournament as a second chance after a disappointing qualifying campaign that saw them finish second in their qualifying group behind Iceland and only narrowly make it to Ireland. He had called for “bold and carefree” performances here and his youngsters did their best to oblige him with a high-intensity start that saw them unsettle their Italian opponents with sharp pressing, with their 3-5-2 system allowing them to pile players forward.
Combative German midfielder Malik Tillman had an early shot blocked in the eighth minute and Max Beier could easily have opened the scoring when heading in space from a corner soon afterwards.
Kerim Calhanoglu, a member of Hoffenheim’s prestigious youth ranks, channelled countless German attacks down the left, and he teed up club team-mate Beier with a perfect cross in the 15th minute that the striker dispatched into the Italian goal with a leaping volley.
Italy, who had been patiently trying to pass the ball around despite the early German onslaught, upped the tempo immediately to try to strike back as the Germans lost a little of their verve.
Esposito showed the first glimpse of his outstanding free-kick taking with a meticulously placed effort from around 30 yards out that was tipped over by the goalkeeper in the 19th minute. He had another go at striking a dead ball from closer to the penalty area four minutes afterwards and very nearly found the top corner with a hit that went just over the bar.
If the Italians were feeling their luck was out with those efforts, they had it repaid in spades in the 27th minute as a speculative drive from Nicholas Bonfanti on the edge of the penalty area took a horrid looping deflection off Jannis Lang to drop over the helpless German goalkeeper Tim Schreiber and in.
German coach Michael Feichtenbeiner said after the match that “the equaliser maybe killed our spirit a little bit. A couple of disappointing draws in qualifying are maybe still in my team’s minds, and perhaps some of them were thinking ‘oh no, not again’.” Despite Nick Woltemade being denied by a strong stop from Italian goalkeeper Marco Molla, it was the young Italians who enjoyed a slight upper hand as the first half panned out with the Azzurri enjoying plenty of controlled possession and launching some occasional attacks – most notably with Juventus youngster Michael Brentan firing wide in the 40th minute.
The Italians upped the tempo with their passing and movement at the start of the second half, with Nicolo Cudrig, Esposito and Bonfanti forming a dangerous central attacking trio, and the impressive Juventus talent Franco Tongya offering support with frequent bursts from midfield.
Italian left-back Iyenoma Desinty Udogie, who is on the books of Hellas Verona, put in an extremely accomplished performance at left-back. He drove forward with composure many times, and almost managed to set several of his team-mates through on goal after charging across half the pitch in the 57th minute. When Esposito rattled the crossbar in the 58th minute, there only really looked like there would be one winner – the team in blue. Germany changed to a 4-5-1 after two substitutions in the 62nd minute but offered little attacking threat in the second period – save for shots wide from both substitute Marvin Obuz and the tireless Kerim Calhanoglu.
Esposito continued to deliver high-quality set pieces, whether shooting on goal or whipping in a couple of dangerous crosses. He fired a peach of a free-kick from a central position 20 yards out into top right in the 80th minute after he himself had been fouled by Koudelka – admittedly not the first time an Italian had gone down fairly lightly.
Esposito had a major contribution in Italy’s third goal in stoppage time, twisting and shimmying past Marton Dardai and cracking a shot across that Schreiber could only push into the path of substitute Samuel Giovane and the German goalkeeper was then unable to cling on to his close-range shot without it squeezing over the line via his own leg.
Italy coach Carmine Nunziata was reluctant to single out Esposito for praise after the match, saying: “He is only the icing on the cake. We know Esposito has been mentioned as a great player but we always say he has a team behind him playing with and for him – our team is more important than just one player.”
Germany under-17s now face an uphill task to remain in the tournament as they face Spain in their second group match on Tuesday. Feichtenbeiner said: “I think the performance today was quite ok, it was a good game but there had to be a loser. It’s my job now to give my players their belief and confidence back as the match against Spain will be at a similar level. If we make fewer mistakes and take advantage of any mistakes Spain make, I think we have a chance.”