Billy STARK today insisted Scotland’s bid for Under-21 Euro glory won’t be blown off course after admitting his youngsters had been taught a lesson by Italy.
The Scots recovered from the loss of an early goal to head up the Easter Road tunnel all-square at the interval only to be hit by a second half blitz as the Italians struck three more times. And although he admitted most of those wounds were self-inflicted, Stark claimed his players will learn from their mistakes ahead of next month’s crucial qualifying match in Bulgaria.
Stark declared last night’s challenge match was a worthwhile exercise, an opportunity for him to experiment as he tests Scotland’s strength in depth at this level and one which he took in handing seven players their first cap.
There was no arguing, however, with the quality of the opposition, a side which has won all five of its European qualifying matches, leaving Stark disappointed but vindicated in his decision to opt for a stern examination of his side’s abilities rather than taking on weaker opposition.
Lessons were undoubtedly learned as the young Italians mercilessly punished a series of mistakes, Stark admitting the Scots had fallen a little short of the standards they had set in remaining unbeaten in their qualifying campaign so far, including two matches against the Netherlands.
He said: “I think the game was a good exercise. I said to the players that preparation games are just that, the quality of the opposition is one where you are tested fully and that proved to be the case.
“But even allowing for their quality, we made some mistakes that were uncharacteristic. We made some not very sensible decisions in terms of selection of passes in the last third of the pitch. The Italians are set up to wait to get a sniff then they are on you. We shot ourselves in the foot a bit.”
If the second 45 minutes left Stark with a few things to ponder, he was reasonably happy with a first half performance which saw Dundee United’s Gary Mackay-Steven cancel out Alessandro Florenzi’s eighth-minute opener, the midfielder guiding Nicola Sansone’s cross beyond Hearts goalkeeper Mark Ridgers.
Stark said: “It put a bit of fear into us, we stood off them and they had good quality and movement.”
At that point the Italians looked as if they might simply sweep Scotland aside, Ridgers, having been helpless to stop that early header, pulling off a string of impressive saves as striker Ciro Immobile – who was anything but – appeared intent on conducting a one-man vendetta against him.
Three times the Tynecastle kid denied the hitman, giving his side the opportunity to level things, before he was replaced at half-time by Rangers goalkeeper Grant Adam, a pre-planned swap, although Ridgers admitted he was enjoying himself so much he was reluctant to depart.
He said: “It was disappointing to lose a goal, but they had a couple of good chances and I had a couple of good saves. I would have liked to have played a bit more, but in these type of games it’s an opportunity for the manager to have a look at other players and I knew beforehand I was coming off. All I could do was my best for 45 minutes.”
Sadly for Adam he’d hardly taken to the pitch than he was being carried off, a precautionary move as he took a kick in the face in going down bravely at the feet of Italian substitute Marco Crimi, giving Rochdale’s Matthew Edwards a first chance to impress.
However, he was quickly picking the ball out of the net after slack defending allowed Immobile to slide home, Edwards then lucky to escape punishment as Sansone intercepted his clearance only to see his shot crash back off the bar.
Edwards wasn’t so fortunate a couple of minutes later, another suspect piece of distribution ending with Danny Wilson bringing down Lorenzo Insigne who lifted himself from the deck to curl a superb free-kick into the corner of the net.
As Stark pointed out, his determination to use all his substitutes left Scotland looking more than a touch disjointed. He said: “We could have stayed a bit safer in terms of keeping more experienced players on the pitch, but we felt we wanted to give some of them some good game time to make sure they got a good run at it.”
Another of those defensive lapses gave substitute Samuele Longo the opportunity to make it four and complete an emphatic win for Italy, but, Stark insisted, he wasn’t too disheartened by the evening’s events.
He said: “The mistakes we made will be pretty straight forward in terms of straightening them out; I wouldn’t expect us to do that in a competitive match. We are not going to lose the momentum we have.
“We look at the game for what it was, against a really good side, the chance to introduce some new players and that allows us to have a bigger bank of players we have to call upon and that will stand us in good stead in the future.”
Ridgers agreed, although the thought of future benefits hardly helped ease the sense of disappointment on the night. He said: “It was a chance to look at other players and now I think the manager has selection problems because he has so many players playing at a good level able to play for the Under-21s.
“You want to push yourself against the best opposition you can and Italy are obviously up there. We did ourselves proud against Holland, so while it was disappointing to lose this one we still look forward to Bulgaria next month. We are still in with a great chance of qualifying.”
Scotland: Ridgers (Adam 46, Edwards 51), Jack (Toshney 81), Perry, Wilson, Hanlon (G Shinnie 81), Wotherspoon (Palmer 76), Kelly (McGeouch 46), Russell (McCabe 46), Allan (McLean 62), Mackay-Steven (Armstrong 76), MacDonald (Feruz 62).
Referee: Michael Oliver (England)