Smith fashions a positive response but stylish Italy hold sway

Italy 2 Scotland 0
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The Independent Football

Half-time: 1-0 Att: 41,745

Half-time: 1-0 Att: 41,745

High on the Curva Nord, a banner carried a macho riposte to the storming of Italy's catwalk capital by 10,000 kilts. "Now we show you who dress the trousers," it promised. Andrea Pirlo duly strutted his stuff with two set-piece specials, yet there were signs that Walter Smith could bring spirit and structure back into fashion with Scotland.

Both qualities, conspicuously absent during the two and a half years Berti Vogts was in charge, were on parade in Smith's first match. World Cup qualification is almost certainly beyond Scotland, but the response given to the former Rangers and Everton manager against the Group Five leaders meant that for once there was no embarrassing disparity between the commitment of the travelling hordes and that of the team.

Barry Ferguson, the driving force behind a second-half fight-back that threatened a draw until Pirlo put the outcome beyond doubt, articulated the difference between Vogts' shambolic reign and Smith's encouragingly ordered start. "For the first time in a long time, I've enjoyed a game at this level," Scotland's captain said pointedly. For the first time in a long time, every player knew what he was doing.

One needed look no further than Gary Caldwell for proof. Twenty minutes into a friendly in Glasgow last year, a Scotland player ran to Vogts and asked, pointing at the Hibernian man: "Where's he supposed to be playing?" On Saturday, Caldwell's increasingly effective policing of Francesco Totti left no doubt as to the precise nature of his role. The Italians, themselves starting afresh under Marcello Lippi, although blessed with superior resources and nine months further down the line than Scotland, acknowledged that they had been given a fight, perhaps even a fright. Pirlo said Smith's side were "far better" than in the videos the Azzurri had studied. Lippi added that "it didn't seem like the same Scotland we saw in the early group matches".

When Wales visited San Siro for a Euro 2004 qualifier 18 months ago and were comprehensively beaten 4-0, Italy had a powerful, mature side near its peak. Against Scotland on Saturday there was no Vieri, Inzaghi, Montella, Nesta or Zambrotta, but a younger side fumbling for form and a formation, relying on flashes of brilliance by Pirlo or Totti. Smith knew as much and devised his line-up to deny them space.

There were inevitable teething troubles, compounded by the departure of Rab Douglas, the Celtic goalkeeper, with a groin injury. If Italy had been out of sight by half-time, it would not have flattered them. In the event, they were fortunate to gain a free-kick for Jackie McNamara's innocuous challenge on Alberto Gilardino, Pirlo curling a 25-yard pearler past a static Douglas.

During the break, however, Smith urged his players to ally confidence and composure on the ball to their tenacity and organisation. The transformation was instant. It took a world-class save by Gianluigi Buffon from Nigel Quashie and wasteful finishing by Kenny Miller to prevent Scotland drawing level inside nine minutes of the restart.

Implausibly, they still looked the more likely scorers of a second goal until Miller's night took a further turn for the worse. His foul on Giorgio Chiellini allowed Pirlo another dead-ball opportunity. Nevertheless, it was a measure of the Scots' improvement that Craig Gordon had scarcely touched the ball before retrieving it from the rigging as Pirlo put the result beyond doubt.

Smith was justifiably satisfied with the display, albeit frustrated by the knowledge that a point was there for the taking. If he made a mistake, it was in not replacing Douglas for 15 minutes; the goalkeeper's loss of mobility proved costly.

He must have hoped for more, too, from Paul Hartley and Lee McCulloch in the wide midfield positions. But the positives from this performance, among which David Weir's imperious return at centre-back was notable, comfortably outweighed the negatives.

The trick now will be to carry the mood of renewal into June's visit by Moldova and the awkward trip to Belarus that follows immediately. "If we continue to play like that, we still have a chance of qualifying," said Smith, optimism overriding logic. "After Italy, there's no outstanding team in the section. But we have to show the killer touch."

The last time there was crowd trouble at a Scotland match, hot pants and tank tops were still in vogue. During the second half here, 150 "ultras", reputedly late arrivals from Verona's Serie B game with Genoa, fought riot police for several minutes. The Tartan Army added to the incongruity of it all by singing "Doe, a deer" from The Sound of Music as batons and flagpoles clashed and flares burned on the tier below them.

Later, rainswept Milan bore a superficial resemblance to Amsterdam in the aftermath of the Scots' 6-0 defeat by the Netherlands when they last met one of Europe's leading sides. Scattered clusters of kilts sought out their hotels, or simply somewhere warm to sleep. This time, with Scotland having exchanged the role of lost causes for their more traditional one of gallant failures, slumber will surely have been less troubled.

Goals: Pirlo (35) 1-0; Pirlo (85) 2-0.

Italy (4-3-2-1): Buffon (Juventus); Bonera (Parma), Cannavaro (Juventus), Materazzi (Internazionale), Chiellini (Fiorentina); Camoranesi (Juventus), Gattuso, Pirlo (both Milan); Totti, Cassano (both Roma); Gilardino (Parma).

Substitutes: De Rossi (Roma) for Totti, 72; Toni (Palermo) for Cassano, 82.

Scotland (4-1-4-1): Douglas (Celtic); McNamara (Celtic), Pressley (Heart of Midlothian), Weir, Naysmith (both Everton); G Caldwell (Hibernian); Hartley (Heart of Midlothian), Quashie (Southampton), Ferguson (Rangers), McCulloch (Wigan Athletic); Miller (Wolverhampton Wanderers).

Substitutes: Gordon (Heart of Midlothian) for Douglas, 42; McCann (Southampton) for Hartley, 76; O'Connor (Hibernian) for Miller, 86.

Referee: K Vassaras (Greece).

Bookings: Italy: Cannavaro, Gattuso, Bonera. Scotland: Hartley, McNamara, Quashie, Pressley, Caldwell.

Man of the match: Pirlo.

Attendance: 40,745.