It was the match Cesare Prandelli hoped would give him answers, the game with which he could experiment, the test to see who should be included in his final 23-man squad. Seven million tuned in to see how Italy would fare against the Republic of Ireland. The Craven Cottage challenge may have provided the necessary answers but those answers came at the cost of Riccardo Montolivo, the captain on the night.
Injured very early in the game, the Milan midfielder realised immediately that his fall was a serious one, mouthing the words "it's broken" to the Italy staff. Rushed off to hospital, his fears were confirmed; Montolivo will not be travelling to Brazil for the World Cup.
His clear anguish and the realisation that it takes only a moment for a dream to die somewhat shocked his teammates, who struggled to compose themselves and keep to the game plan. Worried for their friend and terrified of suffering the same fate, Italy may have started off well but then failed to live up to expectations in what proved to be a difficult match.
Tactically, the loss of Montolivo is a difficult one to swallow. A leader on the pitch and a midfielder capable of contributing to both phases of the game so well, the Milan play will prove to be a difficult man to replace for Prandelli. However, this means Marco Verratti has now been assured his place in the team and based on his performance last night, Italy will be happy their young creative wizard has made the cut.
Perfect at exploiting the spaces, regaining possession and finding the necessary passes to deliver forward, his performance was truly sumptuous and one that makes us wonder why he wasn't assured a place from the outset. It's clear his game must be refined as he tends to invite pressure and needs to release the ball somewhat quicker, but based on talent alone, the PSG midfielder is a delight to watch and performed exceptionally well against the Irish.
Yet while many have applauded Verratti's inclusion, the nation wept for the fate that has befallen Giuseppe Rossi. Corriere dello Sport referred to him as the "man who makes us dream" because "he has technique and heart." Having sacrificed and worked so hard to regain his fitness and form to make the trip to Brazil, it is cruel ending to what could have been a fairytale for the Italians desperate to make an impact in the tournament.
A player defined by his confidence, Rossi's clear skill, ability to play between the lines and wonderful vision have made Italians feel like they have a true leader up front again. Yes, Mario Balotelli is special when he wants to be, but Rossi is consistently impressive, a man who overcame two cruciate ligament injuries to score non-stop for Fiorentina this season. That is until he suffered yet another injury that has now robbed him of the dream to represent his country at the World Cup and potentially guide them to glory wearing the Azzurri shirt that he dreamed of as a child.
Yet despite his arduous journey back to health, Rossi is simply not in the best condition. Playing with a certain unease against Ireland, he has set the bar so high that anything less than perfection is met with great disappointment.
Described as anonymous by more than seven of the country's popular media outlets, the player who displays Italian cynicism and mouthwatering technique seemed somewhat timid and practically lost. Rossi was a shadow of himself while learning to ignore his fear of the tackle and relearning to keep possession until the right moment -- this worried the staff.
Yet, many argue that given Italy have two more weeks to prepare, the Fiorentina forward should have been given the chance to improve his game, to recover both psychically and psychologically. Yet can one really ask Prandelli to take such a risk? He has continuously spoken of the need for athletes and men capable of coping with the difficult conditions in Brazil.
Only 28 percent of Gazzetta dello Sport readers agreed with the coach's decision to exclude Rossi. Why not take the risk? Andrea Barzagli and Alberto Aquilani aren't exactly in perfect shape, either. However, it's important to note the difference in roles. Rossi's responsibilities within the setup demands optimum fitness levels and psychological perfection to ensure opportunities are converted, shots are taken and penalties are tucked away.
This is perhaps why Antonio Cassano made the cut. Coming on and immediately threatening the opponent, Cassano's inventive style of play, dedication in training and confident manner on the ball have made Prandelli believe again. The player's experience and intelligence on the pitch are just what Italy need, even if his attitude is always questioned.
Ciro Immobile -- despite a less than enthralling display last night -- made the cut, but many have asked why include Lorenzo Insigne and not Mattia Destro? Tactics and mental fortitude. The Roma forward may have accomplished remarkable statistics this season and improved his overall game, but he hasn't done enough to convince the coach he can play the sort of game Prandelli wants. Insigne on the other hand offers imagination, creativity, versatility and most importantly the ability to perform in big games. He knows how to sacrifice himself for the sake of the team, how to defend when necessary and how to unlock tough defences to squeeze past the finish line.
Versatility has always been Prandelli's favourite word. He wants a squad that can easily transform, and players who can play to the rhythm of the team, knowing when to sacrifice and when to demonstrate their confident individuality.
His choices were always going to be scrutinised, especially as the country loves nothing more than to passionately debate such issues. Yet while disappointment is a predictable emotion, it's vital to believe in Prandelli's selection. Only he truly knows what happens behind the scenes and what needs to happen in Brazil.