Italy start World Cup qualifying with important victory


It wasn’t a night Giorgio Chiellini will want to remember. But for Giampiero Ventura, Italy’s 3-1 win over Israel was an important first step on the road to Russia.

They took a 2-0 lead in Haifa on the half-hour mark thanks to Graziano Pelle and Antonio Candreva. Then came Chiellini’s nightmare. Already booked for a foul after a mistake, another error opened the door for Israel’s Tal Ben Haim to chip Gianluigi Buffon and get the home side back in the contest.

Chiellini’s ‘off night’, as he later put it, was compounded with a second yellow card – his first dismissal in 90 Italian appearances. It left Israel sensing the chance to pounce and forced Italy to hold on. Much to Ventura’s satisfaction, the 10 men weathered the storm. “We worked as a team, suffered as a team and won as a team.” The win was sealed by Ciro Immobile’s goal.

According to the striker, Ventura told him earlier in the day he would find the back of the net and he did so emphatically. The pair worked closely at Torino in two different spells and so know each other well. It’s the same for Angelo Ogbonna, drafted in to help the defence following the red card rather than Daniele Rugani or Davide Astori. Ogbonna was Ventura’s captain at Torino until 2013.

Marco Verratti showed why hopes have been pinned on him to pick up the mantle left by Andrea Pirlo. It was his first 90 minute showing since February and despite battling a knock picked up in the second half, he was impressive in possession at the heart of midfield and without the ball. He will be a key player for Italy during this qualification period.

A tricky night at the office, but three important points for the Azzurri. That’s because Spain visit Turin next month. The clash of the heavyweights will set up Group G, with only top spot automatically going to Russia. Ventura will have a defensive decision to make in the wake of Chiellini’s red card.

After eliminating Spain at Euro 2016, Italy cannot have any fear. A win opens the door, with fixtures away to Macedonia and Liechtenstein closing out 2016. Should they get past Spain then Italy can target 12 points by Christmas.

That’s why starting with a victory meant so much, even if they did it the tough way in typical Italian fashion. Ventura got his maiden Azzurri triumph and now the team can build towards next month’s mouth-watering encounter.

Ventura leads Italian evolution, not revolution


A new era begins this Thursday, as Giampiero Ventura takes charge of Italy for the first time. The former Torino boss comes up against France in a friendly in Bari, preparation for the upcoming opening World Cup qualifier away to Israel.

The mood surrounding the Azzurri is happier these days. Italy shrugged off major criticism heading into Euro 2016 to perform well under now Chelsea boss Antonio Conte. Eliminated on penalties in the Quarter-finals by Germany, the feeling is if that got over that hurdle the trophy would have been in reach.

Conte was stout in his devotion to the unit. There was no room for the individual; all would have to function for the collective. He was loyal to players he felt could help the group.

That meant there was no room for some of the bright talent coming through the ranks at clubs on the peninsula. It is something Ventura has addressed in his first squad – while still following the Conte framework. Gianluigi Donnarumma, Alessio Romagnoli, Daniele Rugani, and Andrea Belotti are included in the squad, while Federico Bernardeschi is retained from Euro 2016 and Marco Verratti returns from injury.

It is a spine of a team which could well be part of the Azzurri setup for the next decade. But there are notable names left out, as Ventura retains Conte’s primarily used 3-5-2 system.

In that formation Ventura not only continues where he left off at Torino, but builds from the Juventus backline of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli – Ventura convinced the latter to come out of retirement. However, further forward that means no space for Lorenzo Insigne, Domenico Berardi and Stephan El Shaarawy.

“El Shaarawy went to Euro 2016, but there was no role in the 3-5-2 for him,” the new coach said on Monday. “The same holds true for Berardi. As long as the formation is this, it will be difficult for [wide] attackers to find a place.”

Ventura went on to explain he wanted to call up as much of the Euro 2016 squad as possible, as he seeks a good start to what is a tough qualifying group. One which also contains Euro 2016 qualifiers Spain and Albania. The question is whether Ventura will be rigid going forward or if this is a short-term measure aimed at instant points.

Conte fell short in bringing through some of the next generation, offering only fleeting game time. For now it is very much an evolution of the work he did over the past two years. Long term, will we see more of a revolution for the Azzurri?

New boss Ventura has important role with Italy

Torino Fc - Palermo

Euro 2016 proved valuable for Italy. It didn’t end in success, but the team went further than many imagined. In doing so, the Azzurri regained part of themselves, something lacking in Brazil two years earlier.

Gianluigi Buffon implored: “What we leave behind is an enormous treasure and it mustn’t be wasted.” Emanuele Giaccherini: “We’re getting another great Coach like [Giampiero] Ventura, who breathes football and who is the perfect link after [Antonio] Conte.” The message is clear: build on what was started.

It’s a scenario which has already played out once before. Former Torino boss Ventura took over from Conte at Bari in 2009, leading them in Serie A following promotion under Conte. There he built on Conte’s attacking 4-4-2 formation – “Thanks to Conte I had a solid base to build on,” he would later say. He now will continue from Conte’s Azzurri framework.

With World Cup qualifiers around the corner, the 68-year-old is not expected to rock the boat. He has his own staff, but will largely retain the team which took the Nazionale to within a whisker of the Semi-finals.

Italy face a tricky start on the road to Russia. A match in Israel is followed by a return meeting with Spain. Only top spot in each group qualifies, so a good start is imperative.

In order to keep the group together, Ventura must coax Andrea Barzagli out of retirement. The defender said Euro 2016 would be his last tournament, but Ventura is hoping to have the BBC defence at his disposal. So too Daniele De Rossi, who had a fine tournament. With Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio still out injured, the Roma veteran remains important.

But Ventura was known for giving youth a chance at Torino. He got the best out of Matteo Darmian and in his last season regularly fielded Marco Benassi, Daniele Baselli and Andrea Belotti. The latter could well be an option as the centre forward position remains an Azzurri question mark.

There are other promising youngsters to consider, including Domenico Berardi, Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli. Considered too raw by Conte, that may be the case here too initially, but a big part of Ventura’s reign will be to integrate the next generation.

Adding those talents to the solid base seen in France will put Italy in good stead for the future. There’s renewed optimism surrounding the Azzurri and the next two years will be vital.

Can Italy put Barzagli’s retirement plans on hold?

Germany v Italy - EURO 2016 - Quarter Final

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.

Torino impress as club recovers history


Torino President Urbano Cairo joyfully surveyed the scene. For fans it’s something they longed to see. On Monday, Cairo pronounced that all proceeds to rebuilding the Stadio Filadelfia had been secured. The new Fila is set to be inaugurated on October 17, exactly 90 years after the first match played at the iconic venue.

The Filadelfia had once housed the Grande Torino side and was last utilised for first-team action in 1963. It since fell into serious disrepair, a crumbling reminder of what once was. Only bits and pieces remained, forcing a vivid imagination to picture the atmospheric Filadelfia in all its glory. As modern Torino sides struggled, it became a symbol of better times.

Cairo called Monday an “historic day” and “the start of a new era”. For years, a Torino President would win over the populace by declaring his ambition to rebuild the stadium. A stream of empty promises went unheeded. Until Cairo.

Torino won’t play first team matches at the new Filadelfia, but it will become the new training centre and play host to youth team matches. “Recovering our tradition is important,” the patron said.

Not far from the Filadelfia is the Stadio Olimpico, where Torino plays its matches. Also on Monday Cairo declared a proposal to rename the venue Stadio Grande Torino, after the legendary 1940s team, had been submitted. It’s something Turin’s Mayor, Piero Fassino, is “absolutely in favour” of. A final decision will be made by the city council soon.

Cairo has been in the news for other reasons too. The current Granata had stumbled through 2016, winning just two matches to the end of March. It culminated in a 4-1 Turin Derby defeat against Juventus. But since returning from the international break Toro have won twice, 2-1 results against Inter and Atalanta. The wins staved off any relegation fears and Torino are now up to 12th.

Cairo is targeting a top half finish. He also wants to hold on to coach Giampiero Ventura. The veteran boss has been linked with a Torino exit, with the soon-to-be vacant Italy job a possibility. “He has a contract for another two years, I want him to stay with us given how well he’s done in the last five years,” the President stated. That includes promotion from Serie B and a return to European football.

These are happier days at Torino. Off the field they are doing much to ensure the indelible history of the club remains front and centre. On the pitch, finishing in the top half for a third successive season would confirm the club’s continued growth.