The worst possible eventuality for the majority of the 70,000 supporters occurred in Milan last Monday night. Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 60 years after a goalless encounter with Sweden at the San Siro, having lost the first leg in Stockholm through Jakob Johansson’s deflected effort.
Whether it was Gianluigi Buffon’s tearful farewell in the post-match deliberations or Daniele De Rossi’s ‘outburst’ on the touchline in the latter stages of the second leg, the crestfallen nature of some of Gli Azzurri’s most significant stalwarts confirmed what many outside the Italian Football Federation had expressed – something was seriously wrong within the group.
Naturally, and in this case, deservedly, the initial backlash was laid at the feet of manager Gian Piero Ventura. The 69-year-old Italian never really recovered from his decision to deploy an ambitious yet somewhat unrestrained 4-2-4 formation in Madrid against Julen Lopetegui’s resurgent Spain in September, and nor did his side from their display at the Santiago Bernabéu in the 3-0 defeat.
The result all but confirmed Italy’s place as runners-up, but a non-appearance in Russia was hardly considered plausible at that stage.
Nevertheless, the seeds for dismantling a generation of loyal national team servants had been planted.
Ventura had extended his contract a month prior to the defeat suffered in Spain, and in addition to an unconvincing 1-0 victory over Israel, the Italians had, by hook or by crook, created a façade which would shatter in the most excruciating way in their two-legged affair with Sweden.
Such a nosedive would undoubtedly bring about retirements from the old guard, and, just as they had gone to receive their winners’ medals one by one in 2006, Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi said their farewells. Giorgio Chiellini called time on his international career soon after and, eventually, the Italian Football Federation plucked up the courage to sack Ventura.
Never has a country renowned for its grandiose architecture reared its ugly head in such a rancorous atmosphere. It is a situation which might call for the cool-headed, composed Carlo Ancelotti, the current favourite to succeed Ventura at the helm.
Although his teams usually evoke images of on-field elegance, the 58-year-old will have to add the skills necessary to overhaul a national side to his arsenal to complement his reputation as the man who puts the finishing touches to long-term projects.
The role of Leonardo Bonucci, the sole remaining soldier of the less eminent ‘BBC’, will take on greater significance, if he himself does not decide to call time on the international scene. Ancelotti, if appointed, must ensure his partner (or partners if he continues with three central defenders) compliment the 30-year-old’s game as well as Chiellini and Barzagli have done for years. The relative youth of Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli could fit the bill with qualification for Euro 2020 in mind.
Another, perhaps more seamless, transition which will take place will see Buffon, Italy’s most capped player, pass on the baton to namesake Donnarumma. Those 175 caps belonging to the 39-year-old goalkeeper will serve as a marker throughout Donnarumma’s early career with the national side, but the younger Gianluigi does fulfil the cliché of providing the pillar on which to build success.
Italy’s major concerns in the recently concluded qualifying stage were largely at the other end of the field, and therefore the next manager of the Azzurri must find the perfect complement to Ciro Immobile.
Six goals during the qualification process was an impressive feat for the 27-year-old Lazio striker, but 18 goals from 15 games at club level this season suggests there is still a missing link. At just 23 years old, Andrea Belotti may need more time to develop an understanding with the former Borussia Dortmund striker.
Marco Verratti’s suspension for the second leg against Sweden only served to hamper the Italians, but Ventura’s successor must seek to avoid shoehorning veterans such as Marco Parolo into a central midfield pairing, although Jorginho’s form with Napoli and De Rossi’s retirement should dissuade the next manager from doing this.
Most importantly, the 2006 World Cup winners cannot afford to turn a blind eye to their issues on the flanks. Antonio Candreva never looked fully at ease in the right wing-back position, and further upfield Ventura’s refusal to find a method to incorporate Lorenzo Insigne into a side desperately in need of creativity was beyond baffling. Federico Bernadeschi and Stephan El Shaarawy also merited greater recognition of their abilities than to sit on the bench in favour of Manolo Gabbiadini when the team was in search of a spark.
These problems have definitive solutions waiting in the wings within the youth and professional ranks of Serie A’s major sides, but their gradual progression and integration at club level must be adequately mirrored at international level if Italy are to pick up the pieces of this catastrophe.
Ventura pointed to his rather favourable record in comparison with past Italy managers after the second leg against Sweden, having lost just three of his 17 matches in charge. However, his potential successor and fellow countryman Ancelotti suffered defeat in only nine of his 60 games in charge at Bayern Munich, and despite a Bundesliga title in the previous season, he was still shown the door at the Allianz Arena in late September.
Italy found out the hard way there are no guarantees in football. And therefore no one should take the expected news of Ancelotti’s appointment for granted either, as it may not be the perfect match it seemed to be in the aftermath of this debacle.
Photograph: Nazionale Calcio via Flickr