Much has happened since 1958. The moon landings, the fall of Communism, the invention of roller blades, the internet and smartphones. In all that time – bridging all that vast span of human history – Italy have been ever-present at the finals of the World Cup. On Monday night that run came to an end, as the four-time champions limped to a 1-0 aggregate loss to Sweden in their two-legged play-off qualifier.
With blame now being laid on thick by seething Italian fans and the global media, Azzurri manager Gian Piero Ventura is facing the brunt of the furious criticism. While the cause of Italy’s World Cup disaster runs deeper than mere managerial ineptitude – Italy were unlucky to be drawn against Spain in their original qualification group, while they have forced into over-reliance on ageing stars in key positions – there are few coaches who could survive such a historic failure.
The sight of Gianluigi Buffon weeping at the final whistle after his last ever game for his national team was heartrending, and will only fan the flames which are swirling around Ventura’s tenure. So too will the images of Daniele De Rossi remonstrating with his desperate manager, this as Ventura struggled for answers to the question of how Italy might score a goal.
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While Ventura might not be solely to blame for Italy’s struggles, his inability to galvanise the Azzurri at such a crucial moment is a reminder of the genius of his predecessor. It was widely agreed that the team which Antonio Conte took to Euro 2016 was the worst ever to wear the Italy shirt, but nonetheless the soon-to-be Chelsea boss took them as far as the quarter-finals – and would have taken them further had it not been for Germany’s mastery of penalties.
Utilising his pioneering back three to full effect while getting the best out of mediocre attacking options – Graziano Pellè and Eder up front, anyone? – Conte had an ambitious vision for a limited squad of players. While Ventura has been accused of resigning himself to a play-off from the moment Italy were drawn against Spain in the group, Conte was bold and purposeful as manager even as he worked with an indifferent team.
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The contrast between the two coaches is epitomised in their results against Spain – while Conte’s Italy outmuscled and countered their way to a 2-0 win in the Round of 16 at the Euros, Ventura mustered up a 1-1 draw in Turin and a thumping 3-0 loss in the return qualifier at the Bernabeu.
Conte’s back three was rock solid against the Spanish and his midfield more than a match for Fabregas, Busquets, Silva and Iniesta. Ventura saw his ragged back four unpicked by Spain’s midfield technicians – results like that only confirmed that Conte had squeezed every last drop out of the talent he had, while Ventura was only ever waiting for a result which would conclusively expose his lack of ideas.