First-half goals from Domenico Berardi and Ciro Immobile saw Italy beat Northern Ireland 2-0 in their opening Group C World Cup Qualifier in Parma.
The home side took a 14th-minute lead thanks to Berardi's well-taken strike, before Immobile's low drive doubled their advantage seven minutes before half-time.
Despite the visitors enjoying the better of the second period at the Ennio Tardini, manager Ian Baraclough is still awaiting his first win in 90 minutes as Northern Ireland manager.
Italy: Donnarumma (8), Chiellini (8), Emerson (7), Florenzi (6), Bonucci (8), Locatelli (6), Verratti (6), Pellegrini (6), Insigne (9), Berardi (7), Immobile (8)
Subs: Chiesa (6), Pessina (6), Grifo (6), Spinazzola (6), Barella (6)
Northern Ireland: Peacock-Farrell (6), J Evans (7), Dallas (7), Smith (7), Cathcart (6), Davis (7), C Evans (6), McCann (7), McNair (6), Whyte (8), Magennis (7)
Subs: Saville (7), Thompson (6), Lavery (6), Lafferty (7)
Man of the match: Lorenzo Insigne
How Italy got off to a winning start in Group C
The stats heading into Thursday night's clash in Northern Italy did not make good reading if you were a Northern Ireland player or fan, with the four-time World Cup winners not only having never lost a World Cup qualifier at home, but also having not tasted defeat in any of their previous 22 internationals.
So you could have forgiven the visitors' heads dropping a little when they fell behind before the quarter-hour mark as a simple ball over the top sent Berardi free down the right-wing, before the Sassuolo forward dribbled into the box and found the target with a shot high into the roof of the net from a tight angle for his third goal in as many internationals.
Roberto Mancini's team had other chances to score again, before increasing their lead after a Northern Ireland corner left the visitors exposed as Italy broke at pace through Lorenzo Insigne, who then found strike partner Immobile.
There appeared little danger when the Lazio frontman gained possession, only for the player to drive down the left channel of the area, before beating Bailey Peacock-Farrell at his near post with a low drive that the Burnley goalkeeper will be disappointed he did not keep out.
However, if the home side thought their work was done for the night, they were given a shock in the second half as Northern Ireland - driven on by the impressive Gavin Whyte - took the game to their opponents.
Michael Smith was denied by Gianluigi Donnarumma's close-range block, before the AC Milan 'keeper had to react smartly to keep out Josh Magennis's near-post flick as the hosts grew more anxious.
Steven Davis equalled Peter Shilton's UK record of 125 caps as he captained Northern Ireland for their opening World Cup qualifier away to Italy in Parma. Stuart Dallas dropped in to left back to fill in for the injured Jamal Lewis as Northern Ireland started with four at the back, while Josh Magennis and Gavin Whyte got the nod in attack. Ali McCann earned his third cap as he was preferred to George Saville in midfield.
Meanwhile, Italy started with a three-man midfield of Marco Verratti, Manuel Locatelli and Lorenzo Pellegrini, with Chelsea's Jorginho out injured.
The visitors' best chance, though, fell to Paddy McNair late on, but the midfielder blazed wastefully over the bar from six yards out after being set up by Steven Davis on his record-equalling 125th cap.
The defeat makes Wednesday night's home clash with Bulgaria all the more important for Baraclough and his players.
No place home for Italy - Match stats
- Italy remain unbeaten at home in World Cup qualifiers, with this being their 56th such game without suffering a defeat (W47 D9).
- Northern Ireland are winless in their last five World Cup qualifier games (D1 L4), while they've failed to score in each of the last four.
- Northern Ireland have only kept one clean sheet in their last 14 games (0-0 v Netherlands in November 2019), and none in their most recent 10 outings.
- Ciro Immobile has been directly involved in seven goals in his last seven starts for Italy, scoring four goals and providing three assists.
- Steven Davis won his 125th Northern Ireland cap this evening, equalling Peter Shilton's record for international caps for a British nation.
What the managers said...
Italy manager Roberto Mancini: "After five months even the strongest teams have some difficulties. You cannot take it for granted. You can't stop and then just resume after five months. I think they have been excellent.
"Maybe we should have scored more and I think they were a little bit too relaxed in the second half...but after five months that was an excellent result."
Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough: "These are not the sorts of games we're going to get judged on. We need to take that intensity from the second half into our next qualifier on Wednesday against Bulgaria.
"These are the games, against the Bulgarians, against Switzerland, and even against Italy at home. We'll be buoyed by that second-half performance.
"We know we need to start games better, but we can create chances. We've got a team ethic where I think we need to be on the front foot. We can't be passive, and when we are we get affected by it.
"I've literally just looked at it once before I came up here. It's not a pretty goal to concede and we'll be disappointed when we look back at it.
"The 'keeper has just rolled it out to the guy on the edge of the box, he's played a straight ball and then with the third pass the guy's in on goal and he's finished it well at the near post.
"Certainly three straight passes and you're in on goal, that can't happen when we're in the ascendency and attacking."
Man of the Match - Lorenzo Insigne
Insigne was at his creative best against Northern Ireland, with everything that was good in an attacking sense involving the diminutive forward.
The visitors struggled all night to get hold of the 29-year-old, who loves to drop back into midfield to get involved in the game and then create chances for his team-mates.
And the Napoli captain was on hand to play a key role in Italy's crucial second goal, finding Immobile on a counter, before the Lazio striker did the rest.
Northern Ireland take on the US in a friendly international at 5.05pm at Windsor Park on Sunday, before they host Bulgaria in Belfast on Wednesday evening (7.45pm) in their next World Cup Qualifier, with both matches live on Sky Sports Football.
Live International Football
Meanwhile, Italy travel to Bulgaria on Sunday night (7.45pm) in their next Group C contest, with the match live on the Sky Sports Football red button.