Such has been the abysmal nature of Italy’s attempts to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, red is far more indicative of their mood than Azure. The entire qualification campaign has been a mess. Fans have been left red with rage, while the colour concurrently represents the embarrassment surely felt by the coaching staff and players.
Failure to overturn the 1-0 deficit in the return play-off tie with Sweden tonight and the shade for both sets of faces deepens. Indeed, Italy stand on the brink of disaster. The four-time champions are facing the very real prospect of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1958 while coach, Giampiero Ventura, could join Alfredo Foni as their only manager to fail to qualify them for a major tournament.
The defeat in Stockholm was a nadir but it wasn’t a performance in isolation with the 3-0 loss to Spain exposing Ventura’s tactical ineptitude while the 1-1 draw with Macedonia exemplified his ability to bring out the worst in a talented group. Friday was a combination of both. If the 4-2-4 system against Spain was naïve, the 3-5-2 he adopted against Sweden was baffling – it suited no one.
But it’s not just the fact he’s out of his depth tactically because his team selections have perplexed. It is to no surprise supporters are pining for the past. The 69-year-old boss has been caught cold in Antonio Conte’s shadow after the Chelsea coach warmed expectations following the Azzurri’s surprise exploits at Euro 2016.
With rumours of unrest in England persistent, there is growing chatter of a return to Italy and both former club Juventus and the national side are hotly discussed. One iconic player for both has voiced his hope of a return, too.
“He did great with Juve of course and a great job with the national team,” Alessandro Del Piero says of his former team-mate at a Moscow launch for the Telstar18, the official match ball for the 2018 World Cup.
“What to say, we would love to have him back in Italy of course because he is a great coach. He would improve any team and this is what he did with Chelsea last season and what he did with Juve as well.
“We had some problems and he fixed it, then won the title. He has some amazing qualities and that’s why he’s coaching the best teams in the world. I hope he will have a great period with Chelsea and then maybe one day come back.”
It’s been 20 years since Italy last needed play-offs to secure qualification to a World Cup and in a twist of fate the opponents in 1997 was next year’s hosts, Russia. To come full circle, the first leg in Moscow is notable for the debut of a 19-year-old Gianluigi Buffon who replaced the injured Gianluca Pagliuca in the 32nd minute.
While the young keeper didn’t play in the second leg, Italy progressed with a 2-1 win and two decades on, the captain and record appearance maker could do with a repeat. Indeed, the tie takes on even greater significance because this would be Buffon’s record sixth and last World Cup appearance.
The 39-year-old hopes for a repeat of the 2006 heroics but naturally attention is increasingly turning to his successor, AC Milan’s Gigi Donnarumma. His fundamental keeping skills have been happily married to a discipline, intelligence, concentration and professionalism. And Del Piero is confident the 19-year-old will ascend into Italy’s No1 jersey with ease.
“He has really great potential. He’s strong, he’s fast and he’s very tall – that entire package is pretty difficult to find in a goalkeeper,” he adds.
“He’s had a great start already but it’s important to remember he’s young. He’s made some mistakes but that is part of the experience. When a goalkeeper makes a mistake it becomes a bigger issue because it will likely lead to conceding a goal.
“He has to be calm, grow as fast as his potential will allow and always think that he can become better. Be ambitious as well, but he has a great teacher to learn from in Gigi.”
A great teacher indeed but perhaps the location of his further schooling will lie away from Italy. The Rossoneri stopper is perennially linked with a move elsewhere but Del Piero is insistent he can become the world’s best keeper in Serie A.
“I believe in general that Italy has always had the best goalkeepers,” he says. “Now we have Buffon, before we had (Angelo) Peruzzi and the second or third best have tended to come from Italy also. “The coaching for goalkeepers in Italy is amazing so I’m sure he can succeed in Serie A but perhaps he will take a chance.
“He needs good people around him but of course Milan is a great club so he has a chance to stay with them his whole career.”
NEW WORLD CUP BALL
– The new Telstar 18 is a reimagining of the first adidas World Cup official match ball the Telstar, which was used at the 1970 tournament in Mexico.
– It features a new carcass and panel design to provide performance and durability in the stadium and on the street. And also includes an embedded NFC chip.
– Lionel Messi said: “I was lucky enough to get to know this ball a bit earlier and I managed to have a try with it, I like all of it: the new design, the colours, everything.”
The future of the No1 jersey is in safe hands but the No9 and No10 shirts make for a contrasting narrative. When Italy qualified in 98’ the forwards they took to France were among the best in the world. Del Piero was joined by Roberto Baggio, Christian Vieri, Filippo Inzaghi and Enrico Chiesa, meaning Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Mancini, Francesco Totti, Giuseppe Signori, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Vincenzo Montella, Pierluigi Casiraghi and Paolo Di Canio were all left at home.
Two decades on and the options are a far cry from the ones who boarded for France. The squad’s frontline contains an Inter reserve, Eder, and struggling Southampton striker Manolo Gabbiadini. Ciro Immobile’s fierce club form – in his last 10 league games he’s scored 14 times and assisted six – has fans pinning their hopes on the Napoli star.
But so far he’s struggled to translate his exploits onto the international stage with just two goals and one assist in 10 games. However, Del Piero doesn’t share the sentiment Ventura is bereft of quality options, rather that there is a lack of mental fortitude which is the source of issue.
“As a first striker, Immobile seems to be scoring every week,” the 43-year-old explains. “He’s amazing for that so Ventura has real options. He has Insigne and Candreva on the right side so I don’t think we have a problem with the options in attack.
“There is no forward who is not playing well but the problem is maybe mentality.” Del Piero has a point, but to survive Sweden, Italy must be on red alert.
Alessandro Del Piero was in Moscow as adidas launched the official World Cup matchball, the Telstar 18, in Russia’s friendly with Argentina on Saturday
Gian Piero Ventura’s side travel to Stockholm on Friday in the first of a challenging two-legged tie against the Swedes.
The Italians finished second behind Spain in qualifying for Russia and there is a danger they could fail to make a World Cup for the first time since 1958 after being handed the nightmare tie.
And Del Piero, who guided his country to World Cup success in 2006, says it is a terrifying prospect to imagine a tournament without the Azzurri.
“It would be very bad, very bad. It is unimaginable to think of a World Cup without Italy,” said the 43-year-old in Moscow ahead of the launch of the new adidas World Cup matchball.
“For us, the World Cup is one of the most important things and for all of football it’s important to have Italy in Russia.
“We are a country where football is a first love. You can’t imagine us not being there.
“But we want to give all our energy to the guys because we have a great team.
“In the group stage, we had Spain – what to do?
“If you lose one game you’re struggling qualify so now we need to fight better than we have before.”
History is in the Italians favour. The four-time world champions are unbeaten in their last five clashes with Sweden, winning four and drawing the other.
However, Ventura’s side have lacked their usual defensive solidity while goals have been hard to come by, too, having plundered just four times in their four fixtures.
The former Torino boss was chastised for his gung-ho tactics in the 3-0 defeat to Spain in September and narrow 1-0 wins over Israel and Albania sandwiched between a 1-1 draw at home to Macedonia have done little to alleviate the pressure.
Del Piero, though, is hopeful his fellow countrymen can rise to the occasion.
“I hope for them that they can play with some calm and peace,” he added.
“We are putting a lot of pressure on them for this tie and the guys no doubt are feeling that.
“I hope they will be free mentally to go out there and play to the best of their ability.
“If they can do that, they will qualify.”
The first leg kicks off 10:45pm UAE with the return game in Milan’s San Siro on Monday.
The doubters have followed his career, from Real Madrid to Juventus and now at Stamford Bridge following his £58million switch in the summer.
But the 25-year-old is keeping the critics at bay with seven goals and three assists in 10 Premier League games.
His latest goal proved to be crucial as he bagged all three points in the vital clash with Manchester United last weekend.