LONDON • It was a discreet celebration - eye contact, smiles and a simultaneous fist pump - but not quite discreet enough. That it involved Antonio Conte's wife, Elisabetta, and an envoy from Chelsea, his prospective employers, made it look like a public affirmation of what appears to be the worst-kept secret in European football.
As Chelsea's player-liaison officer, Gary Staker could have claimed he was at Stadio Friuli simply to cast an eye over Cesar Azpilicueta and Cesc Fabregas, but his proximity to the Conte contingent immediately set tongues wagging as we await confirmation that the Italy coach will take over at Stamford Bridge after Euro 2016.
Staker was seen chatting to Conte's brother and representative, Daniele, beforehand and when Lorenzo Insigne gave Italy the lead, the reactions were those of a close-knit group with a shared interest in the coach's success.
In the end, it was not quite the result Conte and Italy wanted, as the Napoli forward's goal was cancelled out by Aritz Aduriz, but Chelsea's manager-in-waiting was still entitled to be satisfied.
"I got the answers I was looking for against a strong team," he said after the 1-1 draw. "I'm happy because games like this help our young players to grow in international football."
Italy looked energetic, purposeful and well organised. That the strongest impression among their attacking players came from Insigne, a substitute, was seized by Conte as another positive.
Spain, for their part, fell a little below their usual standards. It was not quite the performance Fabregas would have wished for in front of the man likely to be his club manager next season.
Manchester United's David de Gea was by far the busier goalkeeper, making fine saves from Antonio Candreva and Alessandro Florenzi before he was finally beaten on 68 minutes by Insigne, ending his six-game unbeaten run in the Spain goal.
Finally, Spain were roused into action. From a Fabregas free kick, Alvaro Morata's header was saved by Gianluigi Buffon, but the loose ball was slammed home by Aduriz.
The Italian fans went home happy, impressed with what they had seen, and perhaps Staker was happy too. Conte said in the week that Chelsea were not "taboo". Last night it was as if their prospective relationship, not yet official, got a public seal of approval.
THE TIMES, LONDON