Worthington praises Italian hosts
Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington hailed the strength of his side's Italian opponents after a comprehensive 3-0 loss in Pisa on Saturday 6 June.
Giuseppe Rossi, Pasquale Foggia and Sergio Pellissier all scored their first international goals for Marcello Lippi's world champions, and Northern Ireland were grateful to goalkeepers Jonathan Tuffey and Alan Mannus for preventing a heavier defeat.
Lippi fielded an experimental side borrowing heavily from some of Italy's lesser-known clubs such as Chievo and Catania. And though the likes of Pellissier, Giuseppe Mascara and Gaetano D'Agostino are not yet household names, Worthington insisted they were still on a different level to his side.
The Northern Ireland supremo handed debuts to Crusaders defender Colin Coates and striker Martin Donnelly while Coleraine's Stephen Carson was also in his starting XI for the first time.
"The Italians are very big, very strong and they have a lot of quality in there," said Worthington. "You just have to look at the clubs they are coming from."
Everton's Shane Duffy, for his part, did not take to the field in the Arena Garibaldi last night, due to an agreement Worthington struck with Lippi before the game that only six substitutes would be used.
"I would have liked to have given him a little bit," admitted the manager. "It's unfortunate because he was first-class."
"I had a word with him and, even though he did not play, he has had a great season and played with the Under-19s."
He broke into the Inter side without any sign of nerves, making his bow against AS Roma, picked up his first Under-21 cap with equal aplomb and nor could his performance on his full international debut be faulted.
"It is only logical that players like him, when they have such a level of maturity, make the step-up to the national team so early," said Lippi, who has included Santon in his squad for the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009.
"I am really looking forward to meeting him and hope we can become good friends," said Santon, on the possibility of playing alongside one of his childhood heroes, Fabio Cannavaro.
"I have befriended two World Cup heroes in (Fabio) Grosso and (Gennaro) Gattuso, but Cannavaro is the ultimate for me. Cannavaro is a hero of mine."
Lippi, meanwhile, also insisted the best football in the world can be seen in Italy, even if Serie A has come in for criticism in recent times.
No Italian club made it beyond the quarter-finals of either the UEFA Champions League or the UEFA Cup in 2008/09, prompting many of the league's coaches, including Inter Milan's Jose Mourinho, to raise questions about their competitiveness abroad.
AC Milan general manager Adriano Galliani also recently claimed Serie A "runs the risk of becoming a small league", but Italy coach Lippi believes this is not a true indication of the strength of the Italian game.
"Club football is not the expression of a country's football," said the former Juventus boss. "The big teams in England, Italy and Spain have dozens of foreigners and they cannot be considered as representative of English, Italian or Spanish football."
"I am totally satisfied with Italian football, from the Under-18s through the Under-21s to the national team.
"This is the real expression of Italian football, not what happens at club level."