So often a country with a seemingly limitless supply of world-class talent, Italy’s national soccer team is facing “some limitations” as it tries to qualify for the World Cup.
The four-time world champions ended up second in their group, finishing behind Spain, and will have to win a two-leg playoff against another European team to qualify for next year’s tournament in Russia.
“At the moment we have some limitations,” Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura said after his team labored to a 1-0 win over Albania on Monday, “but there is the desire to try to do things.”
A year ago, Italy was playing in the quarterfinals at the European Championship. The Azzurri lost to Germany on penalties under then-coach Antonio Conte.
There was renewed excitement in the national team when Ventura took over, but that has been on a downward slide as the team’s performances have dipped. The Italians needed an injury-time goal to win in Macedonia, and they were booed off the field in Turin on Friday following a 1-1 draw in the return match.
The win over Albania, at least, was a positive ahead of the playoffs.
“It’s another small step forward and I’m confident,” Ventura said. “I was before when there were so-called dramatic moments and I am now, too.”
VENTURA TO BLAME?
Many in Italy believe the 69-year-old Ventura is the problem.
Italy has looked disjointed in almost every match under the coach and many questioned his tactical ability even before he fielded a 4-2-4 formation against Spain’s potent midfield last month. The Italians lost 3-0.
In Friday’s match with Macedonia, Ventura started with a mainly defensive lineup in a 3-4-3 formation against a team near the bottom of the group.
Ventura will be the coach when Italy tries to qualify for the World Cup in the playoffs, but he might not be there too long after that.
There is still plenty to be positive about in the Italy team.
The core “BBC” defense of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini is still going strong in front of veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Waiting in the wings are Daniele Rugani, Alessio Romagnoli and Mattia Caldara. There is also goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who is only 18 but has already made nearly 100 appearances for AC Milan.
Italy also has some exciting talent up front, including Andrea Belotti and in-form Lazio forward Ciro Immobile. Then there is Lorenzo Insigne and Antonio Candreva.
The 23-year-old Belotti was injured for the final two qualifiers and his absence was a big blow to Italy, which was also without Claudio Marchisio, Daniele De Rossi, Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Pellegrini.
Italy’s main strength has traditionally been its defense, but it has two potent forwards in Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile.
Belotti, who scored four goals in six qualifying matches, should return from injury at the end of October, in time for the playoffs. The Torino forward scored 26 goals in Serie A last season.
Immobile ended last season with 23 goals and already has nine in the opening seven league matches this time. The 27-year-old Lazio forward scored six times in qualifying.
Italy arguably overachieved at Euro 2016, with Conte creating such a strong sense of team unity that the Azzurri surpassed all expectation.
That spirit remains.
“All together we strove for victory,” Insigne said after Monday’s win in Albania. “That’s the right spirit with which to face every match and give everything right until the end.”