Despite managing seven wins and two draws across ten qualifying games, Italy found themselves behind group winners Spain and thus forced into a two-legged playoff with Sweden for a spot in next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
While manager Gian Piero Ventura at times frustrated fans with his selections, if he finds the right mix there are reasons to think the Azzurri can make a deep run toward next June’s final in Moscow.
Kolby Kuwitzky has selected three reasons why the Italy team should be considered genuine contenders going into the World Cup in 2018.
1 The Azzurri are as balanced as ever
Ask pretty much any football fan what comes to mind when they think of the Italian national team and you’re likely to get one response: a solid defence.
The four-time world champions set the standard of excellence at the back, with names like Maldini (père et fils), Baresi, Cannavaro, and Facchetti in their historical pantheon.
This edition of the Azzurri, however, has a chance to be something different. A rising generation of strikers, wingers, and creative midfielders have entered the prime of their careers, and Russia 2018 offers them a chance to make their mark on the storied tournament history of the national team.
Paris St Germain midfielder Marco Verratti is the star around which Ventura should build his attack. His quick passing ability and incisive runs without the ball allow him to bring other players into a cohesive attacking unit.
A potential partnership with Napoli’s Jorginho would allow them to alternate the regista and trequartista roles constantly throughout the match. Roma captain Daniele de Rossi can provide a more defensive presence in midfield in what could be his last international tournament.
Inter’s Antonio Candreva and Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne present a variety of challenges to opposing defences from their wide positions. Both distribute the ball effectively on the ground in addition to their more traditional crossing responsibilities, allowing the Azzurri to play a variety of different kinds of central strikers without having to make wholesale changes to the rest of the team. Insigne excels at cutting in from the left to score goals, and Candreva’s free kick ability could make him 2018’s heir to the retired Andrea Pirlo.
Younger wide options like Juventus’ Federico Bernardeschi, Roma’s Stephan El Shaarawy, and potentially Fiorentina’s Federico Chiesa offer both fresh legs as substitutes and the depth that is so crucial in condensed tournament football.
Italy’s two main central striker options possess very different skill sets and both hope to further the reputations they’ve built in Serie A on the international stage. Andrea Belotti scored four goals in seven World Cup qualifier appearances to go with his 26 league goals for Torino last season. Despite a comparative slow start to this Serie A campaign, his ability to score with both feet and his head make him a potential breakout star on the World Cup stage.
Whether he gets that chance will depend on whether Lazio’s Ciro Immobile continues the torrid run of form that sees him enter the qualification playoffs leading Europe’s top leagues with 14 goals on the season. Which one gets the starting nod promises to be one of the hottest debate topics heading into the tournament.
2 Italian football is back
It's no secret that Italian club football, both domestically and in Europe, has been dominated by Juventus for the last six years.
That now seems to be a thing of the past as new financial investment in both Milan clubs paired with a surprisingly strong Lazio team and the continued development of Roma and Napoli promises the most competitive title race in Europe.
Additionally, Roma and Juventus look likely to progress to the Champions League Round of 16, while Napoli will either join them there or drop down and immediately become a favourite to win the Europa League.
Lazio’s good form makes them a threat there as well and Milan’s domestic struggles make that competition their most likely path to a much-needed berth in next season’s Champions League.
Along with a general rise in the quality of play in Serie A, the number of high profile matches a four or five team title race and progression to the European knockout rounds entails will provide the Azzurri’s young players with invaluable experience in the high-pressure situations they’re likely to encounter at a World Cup.
3 The defence is as good as ever
For the last half decade plus, the defensive trio of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini gave both Italy and Juventus the firmest of foundations upon which to build. While all three still have gas in the tank, a new generation of talented central defenders are making their case for selection ahead of schedule.
Milan’s Alessio Romagnoli and Juventus’ Daniele Rugani have long been thought of as the future of the Azzurri backline, and both have shown signs early in the Serie A campaign that this will be the season they at last make the jump to star status.
Rugani now features regularly for the bianconeri and a great finish to the domestic league season could see either he or Romagnoli in the starting lineup come next summer. Mattia Caldara, on loan at Atalanta from Juventus, has a chance to work his way into this conversation as well.
Whoever starts in central defence will find themselves with both protection and an attacking outlet on either flank. Chelsea’s Davide Zappacosta and Atalanta’s Leonardo Spinazzola are thoroughly modern wing-backs with the athleticism to free up Italy’s creative talent in central midfield and the crossing ability to maximize Belotti and Immobile’s talents in the air.
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