Italy have nothing to fear, but everything to lose

by | Nov 25, 2021 17:42

On the eve of the World Cup play-offs draw, Giancarlo Rinaldi looks at Italy’s possible opponents and highlights where the Azzurri must improve for their games in March.

It was supposed to be so easy. Italy were sitting pretty in their World Cup qualifying group with three wins out of three by the time they were crowned European champions in the summer. However, one victory in the next five fixtures has left them facing the lottery of the play-offs when topping their section had looked little more than a formality. It all feels a bit like sitting down to tuck into a finest Bistecca Fiorentina only to find someone has whipped the plate away and replaced it with a burger and fries.

The Azzurri will just have to roll up their sleeves and get on with it, though. There is no use crying over missed Jorginho penalties and what might have been. The harsh reality is that Roberto Mancini’s men go into the knockout draw against a string of sides who would be more than happy to further tarnish their already slightly dented continental crown.

From Euro 2020 glory to World Cup fiasco: what happened to Italy?

Round one, at least, will be at home although that has not been the source of any particular comfort of late. Nonetheless, it should provide some vital moral support for a mission which has become more complicated than unravelling a plate of spaghetti. Any assistance to get themselves untangled will be gratefully received.

The teams going into the hat on Friday as potential first leg opponents for La Nazionale are a mixed bunch. Austria, Czech Republic, North Macedonia, Poland, Turkey and Ukraine could all stand in their way. None of them look to represent a dreadful draw – on paper at least – but none of them look particularly easy either.

Far and away the most familiar foe, due to geographical proximity, would be Austria – who enjoy a pretty decent record in skirmishes across the border. Indeed, they have won no fewer than a dozen times in 38 clashes with their near neighbours. However, the last of them came more than 60 years ago, which should reassure Giorgio Chiellini and company.

Mancini considers Joao Pedro and Lucca for Italy

The Czech Republic and Poland are the only other two with wins over the Azzurri in their past and the latter – at least in theory – looks like one of the more complicated adversaries. Turkey, Ukraine and North Macedonia may never have managed to defeat Italy but they have all managed draws (if you include Macedonia matches) which, of course, could be enough if the lottery of penalties decides the tie.

If they can win the first round, then more tricky adversaries lie in store. Portugal stand out as a team that the boys in blue would be keen to avoid but there are plenty of other potential difficulties around the corner. Sweden, for example, would bring back bad memories of the last World Cup qualification campaign but Scotland, Russia or Wales would all represent tough customers – especially if the second match had to be played away from home.

However, a major consolation for the Italy camp will be the breathing space they now enjoy until March when the play-off games must be played. Their form has been pretty desperate since the summer and a little bit of time to gather their thoughts and address a few issues will be welcome. They should also rest assured that none of the other teams in the hat will be keen to meet them in the Spring.

The most chronic headache to address is, as everyone knows, a lack of cutting edge. It was a problem ahead of the Euros and it has reared its ugly head once again. It has prompted all sorts of suggestions as to how it could be resolved. Some have flagged up the eligibility of Cagliari’s Joao Pedro to join the Italy fold. Others are encouraging Mancini to look at the form of youngster Lorenzo Lucca in Serie B. And, finally, the biggest gamblers have suggested rolling the dice on Mario Balotelli once again. To be honest, though, that would smack of desperation more than anything if they did go down that route.

Balotelli the answer to Italy’s problems?

Hopefully, Club Italia can get a big boost by bringing all its wounded soldiers back on the front line which might be more important than any new faces. A return for Giorgio Chiellini, Marco Verratti and Leonardo Spinazzola would upgrade this side no end. They might not provide the goals they need but they would give a solid base and help create more scoring opportunities.

There’s no need to panic but it will be a time to perhaps reassess a few things. Has the Azzurri’s style become a bit too pedantic and predictable? What is the best striking option for a team which has lacked a prolific No. 9? And should Jorginho be relieved of penalty duties?

These are questions for Bobby Mancini to answer and nobody would envy him the search for the answers. He showed at the European Championships he could create a great unit, but this little mini-qualification competition will pose him another challenge. He has already done great things, but to miss out on a World Cup would be a significant setback. The Italians go into the draw this week as among the favourites to qualify for sure but – be in no doubt – there are 11 other countries in there who would love to send them packing.

epa09443867 Italy's head coach Roberto Mancini reacts during the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifying soccer match between Italy and Bulgaria at the Artemio Franchi stadium in Florence, Italy, 02 September 2021. EPA-EFE/CLAUDIO GIOVANNINI


  1. Jarod KNowles

    This may not even be necessary as we have Swiss publicly sending gifts to opposing teams in the same group thanking them for knocking out Italy, if you can believe it! EUFA needs to open an inquiry

    Nevertheless, I feel that Italy needs to hone the craft on the status quo and not make too many changes, just tweaks here are my recent findings and recommendations:

    We need to polish Chiesa’s closes, finishes and center his position in both Italy and Juventus and he will score 100 goals like a Baggio, remember he comes from Fiorentina where legendary strikers come from there.
    In fact his closes, finishes may not really be the problem, it’s his struggling from LS Wing (rubbing shoulders with linesman) to center beating down defenders and then gasping for air tries to take a shot. The coaches are at fault as they are overworking him collecting balls in no-man’s land. When you center this lad he will score 100 goals. If for the time being Chiesa is needed as a LS winger and cannot be positioned to the center we need to at the very least have a sort of LB Spinazolla who darts forward in to that LS Winger area Chiesa is in, thus allowing Chiesa to then have the freedom to go center and focus more on the finishes. It is either this or outright put him in the center. Vital to start doing this regiment now as Italy playoffs are in Spring.
    We have the strikers but their finishing technique is poor. Several key pressing issues to address in training:
    – Never attempt to score from the midfield like a canon ball, very few players actually score this way
    – Strike ball less aggressive so it dips inside the bar not over the bar
    – Strike ball less aggressive so it does not go wide
    – If up against a defender or 2 flick ball over as someone like Chiesa collects it and tries to score
    – Never strike ball at the keeper, but to the left side or right side of keeper. Imagine a bus (size of net) and keeper is a moving target or stationery, the striker is to strike either 2 windows to the left or 2 windows to the right of the keeper
    – If up against the keeper in a tight angle flick the ball over the keeper

    Regarding the team roster, it is like running a business. If the player is under performing he needs to be put in the divine woodshed
    Also PK’s must no longer be taken by emotionally distraught Jorghino, they should be taken by grinta Bonucci.
    Also some players to bench are underachiever Insigne.
    Also some players to add to Italy are Politano as a replacement of goals dearth Belotti.

  2. Azzurri2006

    @Jarod KNowles, enough with your “findings and recommendations” please! You’ve posted them on every story regarding the Azzurri for the last couple of weeks. Apart from them being boring, it’s highly unlikely Mr Mancini reads this site to take your highly technical “findings” on board. They’re not recommendations at all. If it was that easy, we’d all professional footballers.

  3. Bob

    this is ridiculous – that we are even at this point… Italy should beat any of these teams, Portugal representing the only real challenge.. but i know how this works.. it’s feast or famine with this team, famine often more common that the glory…

    Imagine, if Italy don’t get through, Mancini will likely step down.. I can’t even fathom that as he was King of Italy for the past 3 years and especially after that Euro…

  4. House Party

    The Blue Elephant in the room is that there is something to fear! We all feel it. In the form of the 2017 shadow, which has now arose AGAIN. Failing to reach 2 World Cup’s in a row would be unbearable. That’s why there’s everything to lose and fear, it’s like a nagging doubt, chomping away in the subconscious like a recurrent nightmare, that it could happen again! It’s the shadow which, along with injuries, poor form + perhaps some initial complacency, has caused them to nervously blow chance after chance to already be there. I hope they can use that baggage as determination to make sure that it doesn’t happen again + as fuel to overcome the missed chances + heal that 2017 shadow for good? They’ve been straining under some kind of “pressure” recently. We may as well acknowledge it. It’s not even uncommon for teams to struggle after an amazing run has come to an end. However, it’s in Italy’s hands, not the opposition’s, as last time under Ventura they were an average side at best, whereas this time they’ve been unlucky, along with the missed opportunities + added pressure of been Euro Champs . But they’re not a bad side all of a sudden! Pressure can drag you under, it’s how you respond that count’s, they need the right mind-set + attitude of “everything’s all to play for,” that’s why some of the one’s who missed the Euro’s need to be bled in, as they’re still hungry + if they can regain that calm authority in defence, get some of that confidence back (Verratti, Spinazzola, Chiello) + integrate the in-form one’s better in March(Calabria, Tonali, Pellegrini, Zaniolo?) then they still have the skill, manager, players + squad to go far! They seem to do alright when Keane plays, his style seems to suit them, possibly even better than Immobile’s does. They play well together too. It’s very easy to rest on your laurels a bit after some success but if there is a man to do a Rod Stewart + calmly sail through choppy sea’s + water’s, then it’s Mancio! ⛵

  5. Jarod KNowles

    Tips actually work
    We complained about canon balls from midfield and both allegri and mancini had players stop that
    We complained about chiesa collecting balls in the nomans land and allegri put him in the center-obviously it would help to have locatelli feed him the ball

    I mean you really want Bernardeschi to kick balls at defenders rather than gingerly flick them over to a hungry and eager chiesa?

    Tips work
    Actually when players are killing themselves on the pitch they are appreciative of fans egging them on.

    Here’s one tip – rather than slamming posters offering great tips to azzuri why not send an email to fifa and open an inquiry on what switzerland just did-sending gifts to opposing teams in our group that knocked italy out

    In closing after I saw italy lose a WC in 94 by a sheer hairline i vowed to help out in any way possible and that is what we are doing here.


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