How Ventura Risks Eliminating Italy from World Cup 2018

A 1-0 defeat in Sweden has raised even further the possibility of Italy missing its first World Cup tournament in around 60 years. Former Torino coach Gian Piero Ventura has taken Italy on a roller coaster journey and unfortunately for Azzurri fans it has strictly been a downward spiral with no uptick in fortune.

Below are some of the main points behind Italy’s struggles:

1) Bad results and even poorer performances: The Azzurri were dismantled by Spain with Isco running the show. Things did not get better when Italy managed a 1-1 draw with Macedonia followed by an unconvincing 1-0 win at Albania.

The results were definitely poor but what is more troubling has been the bad performances. Italy’s struggles have been down to multiple factors but much revolves around Ventura’s inability to get the best out of his players.

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2) Players are uncertain of what are supposed to do: Imagine you are playing in a decisive play-off match and your team is down by one goal in Sweden, but you are unsure of your role on the pitch! Well, that is exactly how Lorzeno Insigne felt when subbed on with around 15 minutes left on the clock. Ventura played him out of position (again)! One of Italy’s brightest talents this season yet Insigne continues to be played out of position, or to be used in ways which hinder his skills.

3) Selection Nightmare: Ventura’s selection process has been controversial to say the least as he excluded the likes of Napoli’s Jorginho from the entire campaign before finally selecting him for the playoffs against Sweden! Jorginho and Insigne have built a solid understanding while both have played a critical role in Napoli’s rise to the top of Serie A.

Excluding Jorginho may perhaps be forgiven, yet Ventura’s decision to pick Eder defies all odds. Eder cannot start for Inter with stats showing the striker has not made a single start in Serie A- Eder has so far made 9 substitute appearances in Italy’s top flight in the 2017/18 campaign.

Eder’s curious case is but one example. In previous matches, Ventura opted to select Leonardo Spinazzola who had not featured for his club Atalanta during the first 4 matches in the current Serie A season. Thus, Spinazzola was clearly short on match fitness. One disappointing omission is perhaps that of his teammate Mattia Caldara who has been one of the most consistent centre-backs in Serie A over the last 15 months while also showing a knack for scoring goals.

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4) Italy’s Age Question: Ventura took over insisting he wants to rejuvenate the side yet he has taken Italy backwards several steps since taking charge. 

Performances and results aside, Ventura has also failed to blend in younger faces into the squad. Against Sweden, the likes of Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi were both selected despite being 36 and 34 years old respectively. While selecting Juventus legend Gianluigi Buffon makes sense considering the vast experience he possesses as a goalkeeper and his much needed leadership, having Barzagli and De Rossi start is confounding. Both cannot cover much space anymore and both would be expected to struggle against a physical Swedish team. However, Ventura decided to start both.

5) Conte vs Ventura: Current Chelsea boss Antonio Conte guided Italy to some solid displays during Euro 2016 despite having a less talented squad at his disposal. Conte’s attack consisted of Eder and Graziano Pellè. Ventura has had the choice of picking between the Best Player in Italy during the Month of October- based on detailed Fantasy Football stats- in the shape of Ciro Immobile and Torino’s top scorer Andrea Belotti. What does Ventura do? He rightfully selects both in his squad, yet mistakenly, again, forces both to play in the Starting XI despite the clear indications the two cannot perform well together.

Conte’s midfield options were rather limited as well, with injury depriving him of key players such as Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio. Ventura can start one or both of the midfielders yet has continued to misuse Verratti, just as he has misused Insigne.

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6) Wrong Formation: Ventura used his beloved 4-2-4 formation against Spain and not only did it backfire but it also led to a humiliating defeat in Madrid. Despite lacking the players to produce the result while using a 4-2-4 formation, Ventura continued to press with it. Ventura clearly failed to acknowledge his squad is not suited for 4-2-4.

Against Sweden, he switched to a 3-5-2 yet that backfired as well because of a number of reasons.

7) Confusion, Chaos & Tinkering: You would forgive a coach for making changes during the early stages of his reign, yet for Ventura to reinforce his uncertainty before and during the two-match playoffs against Sweden spells disaster for Italy.

Ventura has yet to settle on a formation and moved to a 3-5-2 for the first game in Sweden while he is expected to change again for Monday’s game in Milan!

The constant change leads to confusion among the players due to the lack of familiarity with the formation. In fact, the Italian team lacked cohesion versus Sweden and struggled to impose its style, that is if Ventura’s Italy did have any style to showcase.

The turnover and changes lead to a lack of stability. Imagine if this happens during critical matches in a playoff battle for qualification for the World Cup.

8) Last but not least, where is the Passion? From the beginning of the World Cup qualifying campaign, Ventura’s Italy has lacked the conviction and determination displayed under his predecessor Conte during Euro 2016.

The current squad lacks confidence too. The instability and the lack of a clear vision under Ventura has also been quite detrimental in terms of motivating the players and building their confidence. The players are clearly not confident and do not seem to trust Ventura’s tactics.

The Italian manager has failed to transmit clear ideas and has not been able to get the best out of his squad. To make matters worse, the lack of a coherent plan has resulted in a lack of commitment and dedication from the players.

To blame everything on Ventura would be a mistake because the first party to be held responsible should be the FIGC for hiring an unqualified coach in the shape of Ventura. Even if Italy turn things around and qualify to World Cup 2018, the Azzurri will be knocked out from the group stage unless drastic changes are introduced starting with the sacking of Ventura.

There is talk that Ventura does not even control the locker room with some hinting the veterans and the more experienced players have had a strong influence on Ventura and his actions. To fire him will result in a much needed jolt and perhaps see the hiring of a well respected manager who can bring order back to the locker room.

Azzurri fans deserve better. Legendary goalkeeper Buffon deserves better. Instead of celebrating a remarkable career by playing in a record 6th World Cup tournament, Buffon may end up watching World Cup 2018 as a retired player.

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Top ten footballers aged 35 or older in Europe

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In today’s football world, clubs are keen to land young players who seem to possess a wide range of talents. Huge transfer fees are paid, based on potential. Just think about Renato Sanches, Anthony Martial, and Raheem Sterling.

However, talent doesn’t always guarantee success. Just ask the following ten players who are aged 35 years or older. They are still playing a big part in their respective European clubs’ performances due to their massive experience.

1. Gianluigi Buffon (38, Juventus)

Buffon is still the most expensive goalkeeper ever and rightfully so. He kept 21 clean sheets in Serie A, second behind only Atletico’s Jan Oblak, and made a bunch of key saves for Juve. He won yet another Scudetto, while also shining at Euro 2016 with Italy.

2. Andrea Barzagli (35, Juventus)

Buffon got help from Juve’s BBC defence: Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Andrea Barzagli. The latter one is the most classy defender of the three, being able to defend any forward due to his amazing positional play, strength and football IQ.

3. Aritz Aduriz (35, Athletic Bilbao)

Some footballers get better with age and Aduriz is a typical example of this. The striker scored a career high 20 La Liga goals last season for Bilbao, in addition to 10 goals in the Europa League, which earned himself a place in Spain’s squad for Euro 2016.

4. Tiago (35, Atletico Madrid)

It’s not as if Atletico Madrid suffered a lot this season when Tiago went down injured with a tibial fracture. But they did miss his experience and power in midfield during the Champions League final and the final stages of the Primera Division season.

5. Francesco Totti (39, AS Roma)

No active player has been attached to one club for such a long period than Totti, who’s been in Roma’s senior team for 22 years. He endured a difficult season in the Italian capital but still provided five goals and four assists in just 13 appearances.

6. Patrice Evra (35, Juventus)

Another Juve player. Evra joined the Old Lady in 2014 and has won two Serie A titles and two Italian cups since, while reaching the Champions League final last season and the Euro 2016 final this summer. He’s still a reliable left-back and an assurance for success.

7. Claudio Pizarro (37, Werder Bremen)

Pizarro’s spell at Bayern wasn’t a huge success, as the Peruvian was mainly used as a substitute by Der Rekordmeister. However, he rejoined Werder Bremen last summer and hit the net 14 times in 28 Bundesliga games at the age of 37.

8. John Terry (35, Chelsea)

Last season appeared to be Terry’s last for Chelsea, but that changed when Jose Mourinho was fired and the centre-back was able to give the Blues defence stability again after a very bad start to the Premier League season by the Stamford Bridge club.

9. Luisao (35, Benfica)

Benfica fans saw just 11 appearances by their captain Luisao last season. The Brazilian suffered an arm injury in November and missed the rest of the season. However, when healthy, the physical Luisao is still one of the better centre-backs in Europe.

10. Dirk Kuyt (35, Feyenoord)

Last but not least is former Liverpool forward Dirk Kuyt. The 35-year-old Dutchman left Turkey for former club Feyenoord and impressed with his goalscoring and leadership. Kuyt hit the net 19 times in the Eredivisie and four times in the Dutch cup.

Honorable mentions: Gareth Barry (35, Everton), Heurelho Gomes (35, Watford), Ricardo Carvalho (38, Monaco).

Can Italy put Barzagli’s retirement plans on hold?

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Andrea Barzagli was inconsolable. His tearful statement, “In a few years nobody will remember anything about this Nazionale,” came in the aftermath of Italy’s penalty shootout defeat to Germany in the Euro 2016 Quarter-finals.

As it stands, the match in Bordeaux will be Barzagli’s last in the famous blue shirt. An international career spanning 12 years and 61 appearances, he was a 2006 World Cup winner.

“I’ll leave the Azzurri after the Euros. It’s right to give the younger players a chance.” Barzagli made that announcement late last year, after Italy had sealed their spot in France. The emotion of his post-match interview suggests he won’t go back. That is, unless Italy can change Barzagli’s mind.

The Azzurri were criticised before heading to France, but confidence grew after victory over Belgium. They expertly dispatched of Spain and fell agonisingly short against the Germans – Barzagli one of those to net in the shootout.

Antonio Conte moulded a group exhibiting tremendous team spirit. The Juventus defence consisting of Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, as well as Gianluigi Buffon, proved the pillars. They rarely featured as a unit for Juve in 2016 due to Chiellini’s persistent injuries, but called the best defensive unit by teammates and opponents, it was easy to see why. Perhaps the emotion of a strenuous month which Italy weren’t ready to see end got the better of the 35-year-old.

Now they start a new era under Giampiero Ventura. Reports suggest he does not want to make sweeping changes right away. That includes not losing Barzagli.

“Never say never,” Claudio Orlandini, Barzagli’s agent, said last week. “He started out with an idea, but thoughts can change. People in the national team asked him to stay.”

With good reason too. Not that Italy don’t have good youngsters on the rise, because Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli are just that. But with a qualifying date with Spain in October, the new coach wants as settled a team as possible.

Should Barzagli stick by his decision, Italy would be losing the best defender of the trio. The brains of the operation. Barzagli is rarely flustered and rarely beaten. He does not receive the plaudits of his partners in crime, but is just as valuable.

And that’s what Ventura sees. Whether he would go all the way to Russia remains to be seen, but the incoming tactician is hoping to keep a player who can still play a part in helping Italy get there.

This Italy team will be remembered

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Andrea Barzagli is wrong. Tears streaming down his face on Saturday night, the defender, who announced long before the tournament this would be his final international bow, said that this Italian team will be forgotten. “All that remains is disappointment and in a few years nobody will remember anything about this Nazionale that truly gave everything.”

Barzagli was one of five successful Italians in the shootout, a dramatic contest with Germany which ebbed and flowed. But it proved to no avail, as Jonas Hector got the better of Gianluigi Buffon – only just – to send the Germans to the Semi-final. The captain was another to swell in emotion. But they weren’t the only ones.

That speaks volumes about this Italian side. Of how well they did in the face of criticism back home and how close they know they came to reaching the last four. From that point, who knows how far it could have gone. They will be forever left wondering.

But Antonio Conte’s team won’t be forgotten. Two years after what Italian Federation chief Carlo Tavecchio called a “total disaster”, Euro 2016 served to reawaken Italy on the international stage. The final result of a Quarter-final place is well below winning five major trophies. There were mistakes made and aspects of Conte’s management which were questionable – namely his substitutions against Germany. However, it’s the spirit he and the players rekindled into the shirt which will be most remembered.

Conte bore much of the disapproval for his squad selections. But he was busy constructing a united group, learning from the mistakes of a fractured squad which endured a torrid time in Brazil. This Italy side was not the most talented. And with injuries suffered it looked more like the worst in decades. But the togetherness – just look at each goal celebration – and tactical understanding made up for that. Only against Germany, when Conte was hampered by further absentees, did the lack of true quality hit home. He could not fault the effort shown.

But the Azzurri can look back at their first-up win against Belgium and the Round of 16 success over Spain with pride. Two games they were not expected to win, but two in which they deservedly triumphed. Italy ended the reign of Spain, which could have an impact when the teams meet in World Cup qualifying.

The tournament reminded Italy that they are a major player on the international scene. It revived Italian football ideals and helped the nation dream again. That will not be forgotten.

Conte leaning heavily on Juve defence at Euro 2016

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The feeling is when Juventus are doing well that translates to the Italy. No club has had as many World Cup winners as Juve’s 24. In 1934 they supplied seven Azzurri champions. In 1982 six players formed the Blocco-Juve as Italy triumphed in Spain. And 24 years later, five Bianconeri players helped Italy to glory.

As always, there are exceptions. Italy won in 1938 with only two Juve players and crashed out in 2010 with six representatives.

But Antonio Conte is leaning on the Bianconeri brigade of 2016. Crucially, the majority are defenders. For a coach who has chopped and changed his midfield and attack in his reign, Conte has been able to rely on his group of Juventus defenders.

The defensive quartet is led by the inimitable Gianluigi Buffon, Italy’s 38-year-old captain. Ahead of his is the fearsome trio. Giorgio Chiellini provides the brawn, Andrea Barzagli the brains and Leonardo Bonucci technique. Three different players, but a unit which offers Conte assurance.

He knows them well, having introduced the trio to the world in Turin in 2011. “It’s definitely an advantage,” Conte told UEFA’s website.

Conte says when Italy won’t be in France to play on the counter. That’s not his way. Rather, he is after an attacking unit which can take the game to the opposition. As he chases that, Conte is relying on the quartet to keep things tight at the other end. “They know each other perfectly. Of course we’ll try to build something spectacular on these solid foundations, because we also want to play attacking football.”

Juventus conceded just six League goals in 2016 as Buffon broke the all-time Serie A clean sheet streak, which now stands at 974 minutes. But much of that came without Chiellini, who has battled injury. He’s back and says their role is “to give the team a sense of security.”

Scepticism at home surrounding the squad is not shared with the defensive choices. That is seen as the only world class area of Conte’s 23-man selection – Stefano Sturaro and Simone Zaza round out the latest incarnation of the Juve block. Italy have scored just five goals in four friendlies this year and with midfield injuries look short on creativity. So it will be up to the defence to keep it tight.

It’s set to be their last tournament as Barzagli retires from international football after Euro 2016. In the swansong, can their intimate understanding and ability be the rock Conte is seeking?