Italy boss Gian Piero Ventura declared ahead of Friday’s play-off clash with Sweden, “I have never considered the possibility of not going to the World Cup.”
One can be sure that he is thinking about it now, though, with the Azzurri now facing the very real prospect of failing to qualify for the game’s showpiece event for the first time in 60 years, after a 1-0 loss in Solna.
Of course, with the second leg to come at a sold-out San Siro on Monday, the situation is far from irretrievable. Certainly, Italy were unfortunate to lose at the Friends Arena.
Ventura will, rightly, argue that Lady Luck did not just smile on the hosts, she spent the entire evening openly flirting with them. However, while Ventura complained afterwards about misfortune, it was left to Buffon to speak the truth when he said: “The first rule of international football is not to feel sorry for yourself.”
Ventura could do with a crash course in international football because there is no getting past the fact that Italy remain a side without a clear identity – nearly 18 months since the former Torino boss succeeded Antonio Conte at the helm. Indeed, you know you have problems offensively when Darmian is your best attacking outlet!
The very fact that they lined up with a 3-5-2 (the formation favored by his predecessor) in Solna was a damning indictment of Ventura’s inability to stamp his mark on this side.
His ludicrous decision to play 4-2-4 – a simply unworkable system against top sides in the modern game – had to be ditched after the rout at the hands of Spain that ended Italy’s hopes of automatic qualification but Ventura persisted until the end of the group campaign.
Performances remained poor. Consequently, here, in Sweden, he was forced to revert to what his players knew best in the hope that it would produce the kind of commanding, cohesive performance that he had thus far failed miserably to provoke since taking charge.
In fairness, after a difficult opening 45 minutes, Italy did have the better of the game but it was obvious well before the break that Belotti had still not rediscovered his match sharpness after his recent injury lay-off – the Torino hitman touched the ball three times in the first half – yet Ventura made no changes during the interval.
Furthermore, the fact Ventura could find no room in his starting line-up for his most inspirational attacker, Lorenzo Insigne, reflects horribly on the Italy boss, whose side have scored just three goals in their last five games.
He will now need the Napoli forward to provide the spark in Milan, particularly as midfielder Marco Verratti picked up his customary yellow card, thus ruling him out of the second leg and robbing Italy of their best player.
Admittedly, the PSG playmaker was poor on the night but the sight of Insigne being visibly bemused by the decision to send him on in Verratti’s place in midfield only served to further illustrate Ventura’s ineptitude.
The tie is very much alive and Ventura could belatedly get his tactics and team selection right in Milan. It’s certainly a possibility – just not a probability.