ROBERTO MANCINI got Italy’s World Cup comeback mission off to a dream start.
The former Manchester City boss has got his country’s football team buzzing again after they failed to qualify for Russia 2018.
Italy’s 23rd consecutive game unbeaten was also one of their most comfortable as Northern Ireland keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell endured a nightmare.
Burnley’s reserve keeper was twice beaten at his near post in the first half to give the Azzurri a commanding lead from which they never looked back.
It was even more frustrating for boss Ian Baraclough’s men as they did well to hold the in-form Italians and even venture onto the front foot before going behind in the 14th minute.
Northern Ireland were always up against it travelling to face the Group C favourites in the race for Qatar 2022.
But the way in which Peacock-Farrell was beaten, particularly for the second goal scored by Ciro Immobile six minutes before the break, will be of concern to Baraclough as he searches for his first win in open play since taking over as head coach last summer.
They were caught by a devastating counter-attack having just threatened to score themselves when Jonny Evans crossed into the box only for the four-times world champions to sweep the ball clear, pour upfield and score less than 30 seconds later.
It was a huge blow as Northern Ireland had regrouped after going behind to an earlier goal on the break, through Domenico Berardi on another swift burst forward.
Baraclough’s sights will always have been set more firmly on next Wednesday’s second qualifying match when relative minnows Bulgaria visit Windsor Park.
He will also have been buoyed by a better second half performance when Gavin Whyte and Michael Smith went close during brief spells of pressure from Northern Ireland.
Middlesbrough’s Paddy McNair blasted over from 15 yards three minutes from time and Baraclough’s enduring problem is the lack of a clinical finisher.
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Captain Steven Davis earned his 125th cap to draw level with former England keeper Peter Shilton as joint-UK record appearance makers.
Mancini, who led City to the Premier League title in 2012 as coach, is determined to reassert his country as a force on the international stage following the humiliation of the last dismal World Cup campaign.
His line-up last night included Chelsea’s third-choice left back Emerson and seasoned defender Giorgio Chiellini, who oozed class as he collected his 106th cap.-