Pressure on Italy in World Cup playoffs

Reigning European, and four-time world champion Italy, stands a very real chance of missing out on qualifying for the World Cup for the second consecutive time.

Italy’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup sent shockwaves throughout the world of football and disgusted a vast majority of the country’s supporters all over the globe.

Roberto Mancini revitalised the national team to an extent that they surprised everyone on the way to clinching their only second European Championships in 2021.

Nine months on, Italy is in the dreaded position it was in 2017; having to navigate a playoff to qualify for the World Cup. One would think that the demons of 2017 would have been slain by the triumph of 2021, but it seems that they have not been fully exorcised yet.

Italy has only itself to blame for getting here. In the two qualifier draws against Switzerland, Jorginho missed a penalty in each match. That proved to be a pivotal difference as the Swiss qualified automatically from the group, consigning Italy to the playoffs.

Since the triumph in London, the form and fitness of some of Italy’s key players have been less than impressive. Gianluigi Donnarumma is struggling for form and consistency at his new club, Paris Saint-Germain. His manager continues to alternate him with Keylor Navas.

Donnarumma was at fault for Real Madrid’s equaliser as the Los Merengues knocked the Parisian club out of the Champions League. There aren’t any outstanding choices in the Italian national team to replace him, so, despite his lack of form, he is expected to start the playoff against North Macedonia tomorrow morning (3.45am).

Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini have been struggling with injury for some time now. The best option to replace them would be young Inter centreback, Alessandro Bastoni, but I am not sure if Mancini would be brave enough to call on him, if needed.

One of the outstanding leftbacks at Euro 2020, Leonardo Spinazzola, is still out with the injury he suffered in that tournament. There is no outstanding leftback in the squad despite the presence of his replacement at that tournament, Emerson Palmieri.

Federico Chiesa is out for the rest of the season through an injury. Ciro Immobile struggles to replicate his club form for his national team, and Andrea Belotti is just not good enough at this level.

Recently, first-choice rightback, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, was sidelined from these qualifiers due to an injury he picked up while playing for Napoli.

In his place, there is the option of the experienced Alessandro Florenzi, but I am surprised that in Di Lorenzo’s absence, Milan’s Davide Calabria was not called up.

A department Italy is blessed with is in midfield, where Mancini is spoilt for choice. Besides the first-choice trio of Nicolo Barella, Jorginho, and Marco Verratti, he has the option of calling on the in-form Lorenzo Pellegrini and Sandro Tonali.

In attack, if he shows the courage with which he started his career as Italy manager, he would pick the in-form Sassuolo trio of Domenico Berardi, Gianluca Scamacca and Giacomo Raspadori.

However, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Lorenzo Insigne gets the nod ahead of the younger Raspadori. He has the option of calling on the mercurial Nicolo Zaniolo too, if he can stay fit.

A flaw in Italy’s play is that for all the possession the team keeps, it could lack the creativity to unlock defences, as seen in the backend of its European Championships campaign, and the last five World Cup qualifiers.

There isn’t much time on hand for Mancini to get it right, so I reckon he needs to be clever and use the tried and tested from the European Championships, as well as partnerships that play together week-in, week-out at club level.

The pressure will be on the Azzurri. Whatever it did in June 2021 counts for little now. Football has a notoriously short memory.

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