The nightmare of Italy’s play-off against Sweden

You have to be over 60 to remember a World Cup without Italy.

Six decades ago, a 2-1 defeat by Northern Ireland in Belfast meant the Azzurri stayed at home and had to listen to the tournament on the radio.

It’s why nobody in Italy wanted Michael O’Neill’s side in the play-offs. Too many ghosts from the past. In the end, the name pulled out of the hat was still inauspicious. Sweden hosted the World Cup in 1958. The only edition of the competition Italy have missed.

“We are not taking into consideration the idea of not going to the World Cup,” says coach Giampiero Ventura.

He’s 69 – old enough to remember the time Italy lost in Belfast and does not want to go down in history with Alfredo Foni as the only manager ever to fail to qualify them for a major tournament.

It is something Ventura would not be able to live down and would likely end his brief spell in charge of Italy. Especially with former Bayern Munich boss Carlo Ancelotti available.

But how have Italy got to this point in the first place? What has gone wrong?

Before the European Championship a year ago, Italy’s squad was considered the poorest they have picked for a major tournament since 1950. The star of the Azzurri was not a player but the manager Antonio Conte. He made Italy greater than the sum of their parts and fostered a genuine belief that they could win the competition.

The continuity candidate – it has not been easy for 69-year-old Giampiero Ventura

Italy beat the Belgium of Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, knocked out Spain and were only eliminated on penalties by world champions Germany. Had they won that shootout, Conte, who became Chelsea boss after the tournament, is convinced the team would have gone on to lift the trophy.

Bettering what he achieved with this group was always going to be difficult. Ventura was billed as a continuity candidate. He replaced Conte at Bari and has similar ideas on how the game should be played. But at close to 70 Ventura has never seemed entirely comfortable with his portrayal as a chip off the same block as someone 20 years his junior.

He has tried to put his own stamp on the team, insisting Italy play a system unsuited to the characteristics of their best players, Paris St-Germain midfielder Marco Verratti and Napoli forward Lorenzo Insigne.

The 4-2-4 Ventura deployed at the Bernabeu against Spain in September was tactical suicide. He did not just lose the game. He lost face. Naturally it did not help that Conte eliminated the same opponent from the Euros a year earlier with a tactical masterclass.

Automatic qualification was gone but in truth Italy started the group second favourites anyway.

From the outset they accepted a play-off would likely be necessary to book their place in Russia. While Italy did not expect to beat Spain in Madrid, it is also true they did not anticipate losing 3-0.

The manner of that defeat and the underwhelming performances that followed against Israel (a 1-0 win) then Macedonia (1-1 draw) at home are cause of great concern.

The veteran players called a crisis meeting after the Macedonia draw in Turin, leading to the assumption they were taking matters into their own hands with confidence in Ventura at a low ebb.

The reports were strenuously denied. Ventura said he encouraged the get-together. But it is hard to imagine the same happening or being necessary under Conte.

The confidence he generated has gradually faded. Only the spirit remains.


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