The Italian Renaissance and the Azzurri Blues

When Italy failed to qualify for this summer’s World Cup, the whole Italian nation entered a period of mourning…shell shocked that the famous Azzurri would not be present at the tournament. In fact this was the first time this had ever happened to the four-time winners and many were asking what could possibly have gone wrong?

The rest of the world were also bewildered at Italy’s predicaments, whilst the whole Swedish nation rejoiced…and rightly so as they proved to be the superior in the two leg play offs, winning 1-0 an aggregate! However, whilst most were aiming fingers at the then Italy manager; Gian Piero Ventura for his unambitious style of football and even for creating rifts within the camp…one could not only lay the blame at his feet.

Indeed for Ventura has credible statistics to back up his time in charge of the national team and even out performed the previous three managers, which included the great Marcello Lippi in his second term in the top job. His win ratio even stacked up against most managers going all the way back to the early nineties when only Arrigo Sacchi had a notably lead in the standings. However, the style and exclusion from the World Cup would be his obvious undoing…this was tantamount to sacrilege in a country where the sign of the cross before a match is not a mere video clip primed for the next FIFA game on the Xbox.

For many analysers of the Italian game would tend to agree that the beginning of the end came after the glorious 2006 winning campaign in which Italy won their fourth title and the team were littered with the some of the modern greats of the era. However although they qualified for the next two World Cups, they also failed miserably to qualify from the early group stages.

In the Euros, Italy faired better…placing quarter finalists and runners up in the next two championships…but most would agree that if not for the old guard still plying their trades…the young guns were simply not good enough to carry on the great Azzurri traditions.

Indeed, Italy has been suffering with a talent gap for the last ten years and whilst Serie A still employs many Italians in their starting line ups…it appeared that this was not being translated into the national team. Italy had suffered from a growing imbalance in their side and had become the also-rans in many encounters…even those in which the results proved favourable…they hardly dominated possession or were the quintessential stalwarts in the defence that the world had grown accustomed to over multiple generations.

When Antonio Conte took over the reins for the 2016 Euro campaign, many secretly believed that the prophets of doom would have their day in the sun then. It was widely acknowledged that the pool of players that Conte had to choose from were solid professionals but were not exactly at world class level. However Conte’s infectious appetite for success and steely determination to turn the national team into the hardest working outfit in the qualifiers was largely the reason why Italy over performed at the 2016 championships…even securing a quarter final place, which was seen as a huge success considering the talent deficiency he was confronted with.

However, with any low ebb, there is always a new wave that would swell ambition and raise Italian hopes to crested heights. Now that Luigi Di Biagio has been promoted in a temporary capacity from the U21 side to the national team…many are looking to him to grab hold of the ragtag blues and whip them into shape before any permanent decision is made about his future…or whether the FIGC – Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio, will entice Antonio Conte to return for another run at the mill.

Di Biagio has impressed in his U21 role and many expect him to translate well into the senior side too. Having already set out his stall with his squad selection for the Argentina and England friendlies this coming week, this may be the time that Italy recover from their woes and can take this period of competitive inactivity to rebuild and even come back stronger.

For the future of Italian football may even be blessed with a resurgence that many would hope for but few would think possible given the current predicaments. Much has been said over the last few months of the next generation of Italian players, those in the youth system who are impressing not only in the national set up but also for their clubs too. Some of the brightest have even started to make regular appearances in the senior sides such as Moise Kean at Verona, Alesandro Plizzari at Milan and especially Pietro Pellegri at Genoa. This might be the period where the Italians see the inclusion of youth within the squads especially when the Euro qualifiers commence later in the year.

For now Di Biagio has to focus on his current squad with the mix of experience and youth talents and no nonsense defensive excellence we know to be something many from the peninsula have found wanting in some time. His first challenge will be against the always impressive Argentina on Friday 23rd March at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester and many will expect an upset as the Italians will aim to overthrow their global brothers.

In fact Italy have proven to be Argentina’s bogey team in a number of encounters over the years. When Argentina won both of their World Cups in 1978 and 1986, the only team not to lose to them were Italy. Italy winning their group stage encounter in 78 and drawing in the 86 group stage. Whilst the aficionados will look to the qualities of Messi to run the show, there are many within the Italian camp who would claim the game is there to be won and the qualities that Italy have should be enough to negate any Argentinian advances.

Di Biagio will look to his experienced campaigners at the back to hold firm, however his squad is full of attacking quality that should not be underestimated too. The likes of Verratti, Insigne, Immobile and Candreva will lead the midfield and attacking lines and should pose a significant threat to the dreaming Argentina fans.

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