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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Italy Striker Review – World Cup Qualifiers

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With Italy having missed out on automatic qualification for next year’s World Cup and having to settle for a playoff spot, it is now time to take a look at the Azzurri strikeforce and see how the frontmen have been performing for their clubs so far this season.

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Italy and Spain set to play important 2018 World Cup qualifier

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New eras in the history of both the Italian and Spanish national teams have recently opened, with the two sides now preparing to face one another in an important 2018 World Cup Qualifier.

In the immediate aftermath of Euro 2016, whilst Giampiero Ventura became Italy’s manager following the departure of Antonio Conte, Julen Lopetegui was appointed Vicente Del Bosque’s predecessor as manager of Spain.

Subsequently both managers enjoyed winning starts to their respective teams 2018 World Cup qualifying campaigns, as Ventura guided Italy to an away win over Israel, whilst Spain comprehensively defeated Liechtenstein 8-0 in Lopetegui’s first competitive game in charge of La Rioja.

Evident from those games was that the core of both the Italian and Spanish sides remains the same from their previous managerial regimes.

As such the upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifier between the two teams is set to be an extremely intriguing contest that has the potential to provide a strong indication as to the stage at which Italy and Spain’s rebuilding processes under Ventura and Lopetegui respectively have reached.

The impressive manner in which Italy and Spain opened their qualification campaigns, served to portray that Ventura and Lopetegui have already exerted a positive influence upon their players.

In the process of beating Israel, Italy delivered a typically assured, controlled, disciplined and workmanlike performance, with Graziano Pelle, Antonio Candreva and Ciro Immobile scoring as the Azzuri secured a 3-1 victory, despite Giorgio Chiellini being sent off.

Given that the Juventus defender is suspended for the game against Spain and set to be replaced by the uncapped Alessio Romagnoli.  At just 21-year-old Romagnoli is rapidly developing into a highly accomplished centre back, as testified by his recent impressive form for AC Milan, whereby he has helped I Rossoneri embark upon a five match unbeaten run in Serie A.

With the exception of Romagnoli, Italy’s team in all likelihood will feature many of the players who performed exceptionally well at Euro 2016.

For instance, whilst Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci are to form I Azzuri’s defensive base, Ventura is to remain loyal to the central midfield partnership of Danielle De Rossi and Marco Parolo, with Eder and Graziano Pelle to play up front.  Therefore the spine of Italy’s team is to assume a distinctly similar and strong look whilst so too is that of Spain’s.

Specifically Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and David Silva, who have all enjoyed great success with Spain, are to form the core of Lopetegui’s side.  Nevertheless that side will also adopt a fresh new look, with the 50-year-old manager introducing players such as Dani Carvajal, Koke and Vitolo to his starting XI.

Therefore on the basis of their abundance of previous intense games, the most recent of which was Italy’s 2-0 Euro 2016 second round win, and the strength of their respective squads, the stage is set for another intriguing encounter between I Azzuri and La Rioja, whose 2018 World Cup qualifier, although by no means decisive in terms of the team prospects of reaching Russia, is nevertheless very important.

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Italy start World Cup qualifying with important victory

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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.

History proves a veteran striker is needed to win World Cup or European Championships

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It’s been twelve years since that dramatic day at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, when Portugal’s dream of winning the European Championship on home soil were crushed by a surprising Greek team. Greece won the 2004 final 1-0 with a goal by Angelos Charisteas, making a young Cristiano Ronaldo cry like a child.

Experience needed

However, Portugal got their redemption, as they are finally the kings of European football. The Selecao beat hosts France in the Euro 2016 final by the same score as the one in 2004: 1-0. A goal in extra time by Eder did the job for Ronaldo and his teammates, handing France the same fate: losing a European Championships final on home soil.

Maybe it had something to do with experience. Or maybe not. That 2004 Portugal team had very experienced star players, like Luis Figo and Deco. And they played 29-year-old Pauleta in attack, just like Les Bleus played 29-year-old Olivier Giroud next to Antoine Griezmann (25).

It’s an historical fact that teams who reached the final of the Euros or a World Cup this century have had at least one striker above the age of 27 starting the game. The only exception to this rule was Spain, who started a 24-year-old Fernando Torres during the Euro 2008 final against Germany.

Belgium’s problem

This seems to be a big issue for a nation like Belgium. The Red Devils, with new coach Roberto Martinez, have four strikers in their current squad: Christian Benteke (25), Romelu Lukaku (23), Michy Batshuayi (22), and Divock Origi (21). Belgium were one of the favourites to win Euro 2016 but were eliminated by Wales in the quarter-finals, suffering the same fate during the 2014 World Cup against Argentina.

Beneteke will be 27 when the 2018 World Cup arrives, meaning it would be wise for Martinez to play the Crystal Palace striker. However, the Spanish manager seems to rely on a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Lukaku (then 25) as his first option.

If history repeats itself, Belgium won’t make it to the final. Unless, they play as great as the 2008 Spain team… Yeah, right.

The numbers:

European Championships 2000

France: Christophe Dugarry (28)

Italy: Marco Delvecchio (27) – Francesco Totti (23)

World Cup 2002

Brazil: Rivaldo (30) – Ronaldo (25)

Germany: Oliver Neuville (29) – Miroslav Klose (24)

European Championships 2004

Greece: Zisis Vryzas (30) – Stelios Giannakopoulos (30) – Angelos Charisteas (24)

Portugal: Pauleta (29)

World Cup 2006

Italy: Francesco Toni (29) – Luca Totti (29)

France: Thierry Henry (29)

European Championships 2008

Spain: Fernando Torres (24)

Germany: Miroslav Klose (30)

World Cup 2010

Spain: David Villa (28)

Holland: Robin Van Persie (27)

European Championships 2012

Spain: Andres Iniesta (28) – David Silva (26)

Italy: Antonio Cassano (30) – Mario Balotelli (22)

World Cup 2014

Germany: Miroslav Klose (36)

Argentina: Gonzalo Higuain (26) – Lionel Messi (27)

European Championships 2016

Portugal: Cristiano Ronaldo (31) – Nani (29)

France: Olivier Giroud (29) – Antoine Griezmann (25)

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Verratti must become a key Azzurri figure

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It was a substitution the home fans were pleased to see. While Italy were losing in Giampiero Ventura’s first match in charge against France, and would go on to lose 3-1, the arrival of Marco Verratti just past the hour mark was a welcome return.

The midfielder had been forced to miss much of the 2015-16 campaign and subsequently Euro 2016 through injury. It was a blow for the Italians, who nonetheless performed well in the tournament.

His entrance on Thursday was positive for Ventura and the new Azzurri era. And well-timed. As Verratti returned, Daniele De Rossi sustained an injury which rules him out of tonight’s opening World Cup qualifier against Israel. Verratti, so long threatening to break into the Nazionale limelight, now has a fantastic opportunity.

Since his swashbuckling displays for Pescara which led to a risky, but rewarding move to Paris Saint-Germain in 2012, Verratti has been seen as the brightest young talents in Italy. He played twice at World Cup 2014, but Andrea Pirlo’s international u-turn under new boss Antonio Conte meant Verratti had to bide his time. He made five Euro 2016 qualifying appearances and with Pirlo out of favour, only injury kept Verratti from a starting spot.

With both De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio absent, this is Verratti’s time to shine. In Ventura, Italy have a boss not afraid to give younger players a chance, something some past tacticians have been guilty of. As Ventura said on Sunday, while Conte took over on the back of three Scudetto triumphs at Juventus he had ‘victories’ of his own at Torino: seeing budding talents progress to Europe’s biggest clubs and to the national team.

The stars are aligning. And Verratti, who has won championships in France and made it to the latter stages of the Champions League, is ready for Italy’s upcoming test. It’s a difficult group which also includes Spain and fellow Euro 2016 qualifiers Albania. The opening match away to Israel is tricky, but also a must-win with La Furia Roja visiting Turin next month.

The 23-year-old has taken on responsibility in France and is ready to do so for the Azzurri. “The role I play in is not important. What matters is doing what the coach asks of me so I can do what’s best for the team. I do like Ventura’s way of understanding football.”

Always appearing at consummate ease in possession, Verratti has the quality to add to what many would suggest is a low tally of just 16 Azzurri caps. He can become their central lynchpin.

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Ventura leads Italian evolution, not revolution

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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?

Impressive Belotti aims to continue Torino form with Italy

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Just two rounds into the Serie A campaign and Andrea Belotti is already clear atop the scorers chart with four goals. Just think then, how much better his start would look if he could convert a penalty.

Belotti was on target against Milan in the opening round, but a last second penalty was saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma to deny Torino a point. Belotti again went to the spot on Sunday against Bologna, only to be thwarted once more. This time it wasn’t as costly, as the striker scored three times in a 5-1 romp.

It was the best way to celebrate Saturday’s news, with Belotti one of five new players called up to Giampiero Ventura’s first Italy squad. The Azzurri face France in a friendly on Thursday, before opening World Cup qualifying against Israel next Monday.

Ventura called seven players not part of Antonio Conte’s Euro 2016 squad, signalling a change which is sure to be more pronounced throughout his reign. Italy impressed in France, only falling to Germany in the Quarter-finals on penalties. It was the consummate Conte squad, relying on teamwork and determination over flair.

Graziano Pelle – two goals at Euro 2016 – and Eder – one – retain their spots in attack. Both came in for prior criticism, but could leave with their heads held high. However, both strikers were very much Conte selections. With Pelle now playing for Chinese club Shandong Luneng and Eder continuing a barren run for Inter at the start of the new season, how long they continue to be included remains to be seen.

Perceived the weakest area of the squad heading into the tournament, there is now a chance for fresh blood to take the bull by the horns in attack. Genoa’s Leonardo Pavoletti has two goals from the opening two matches. Belotti has four and the advantage of knowing Ventura well. The pair worked at Torino last season, with the 22-year-old on target 12 times. The squad selections suggest Ventura will continue with a 3-5-2 system, one he utilised at Torino to good effect.

Il Gallo is not flashy, but certainly effective. Perhaps the penalty spot was too far for him – all of Belotti’s goals this term have come from closer distances. He is a penalty area predator, the type of player Italy have lacked in recent tournaments.

Torino boss Sinisa Mihajlovic said after Sunday’s win that he “fully deserves his international call-up.” The youngster will be looking for a chance to impress in the next two matches. The conditions are there for Belotti to do well.

Why Graziano Pelle is right to milk Shandong Lueneng of their cash

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A fool will always be separated by his/her money and Chinese side Shandong Lueneng have joined that never ending queue. This week they signed Italian international and Southampton player Graziano Pelle for £12m, a bargain in light of recent football transfers. However that ‘bargain’ quickly becomes grotesque when one takes a look at how much they are willing to pay a player who will turn 31 on Friday. A cool £260,000 a week is the answer. And Pelle has signed a contract for just over two years that will see him paid £34m over that time period.

His wages are a real head scratcher. Yes there is money in the Chinese league, they have proven that in the past by throwing wads of it at players who have clearly gone to milk what was left of their waning careers. Just ask Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anekla or Obafemi Martins. But why exactly does his new club feel his weekly wages are justified? Pelle has won just two trophies in his career- both with AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch league. He plays as a striker and yet only two times in his career has scored 20 or more league goals in a season. Both of those were at his time with Feyenoord again in the Erdevisie where the football isn’t exactly at the highest of levels. For Southampton in the Premier League Pelle managed 30 goals in 81 appearances, good but not spectacular. He did have a very decent European Championships in France and it seems his performances coupled with Premier League experience have been the strongest factors in his new clubs interest with him.

As for Pelle there can be no complaints surely of what he has done. Rumours had been floating around that some of Europe’s biggest clubs were coming in for him. But realistically what would have happened? A few games here and there, warming the bench- and then career quickly swallowed up by disgruntled fans and a new manager before moving to Turkey? Hold on to that thought. Pelle at 30 has realised he had one more big move in him and sure the big move is not to a big club but it is for big money- if his future was not already secured it is now.

Pelle has given up trophies for money, it sounds crass of course it does. But Pelle was playing on loan for Serie B side Crotone less than a decade ago. He knows about dreams achieved and lost. And whilst his move may seem like a loss for football- well it certainly isn’t for him. Let’s just hope that Shandong don’t have false promises based on their latest signings surname.

 

New boss Ventura has important role with Italy

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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.