As Italy’s quite remarkable 11-year unbeaten qualification run ended abruptly at the hands of Spain, a nation so accustomed to reaching every major tournament with consummate ease must accept it won’t be a foregone conclusion this time around.
Morale is understandably low and, while the main objective has slipped away, Giampiero Ventura’s men only need a maximum of six points to ensure second spot in the standings, and this is the realistic aim now.
Ventura’s wounded troops can use the remaining three fixtures to their advantage, though. While it’s commonly known the veteran tactician’s formation of choice is 4-2-4, the final match-ups will allow the chance to experiment and throw caution to the wind.
The four-time world champions will be without first choice pairing Giorgio Chiellini and the suspended Leonardo Bonucci for Tuesday’s tie with Israel, and this should be a welcome opportunity for Daniele Rugani to stake a claim.
While Chiellini’s absence against La Roja was massively felt, Italy cannot rely solely on the former Juventus team-mates and both men, as imperious as they have been, need support.
At 23 years old, Rugani might not have the experience to match his peers, but does have the ability, and introducing the talented defender ought to be the natural choice to partner Andrea Barzagli at the heart of the backline.
The marauding Andrea Conti has also earned the opportunity to start and would offer a different dimension at right-back. Matteo Darmian is an honest professional, but is not the same player who was a constant threat on the flank for Torino. Expect new Milan man Conti to make the position his own this season, provided Ventura is willing to freshen things up.
Further forward, Italy should move away from the set-up they’ve adopted in qualifying so far. Daniele De Rossi and Marco Verratti were on a hiding to nothing against the three of Koke, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta. The midfield pairing was outnumbered and outclassed and certainly not helped by their Coach.
The emphatic way Spain took apart their opponents resembled the most recent Champions League Final. Although the formations may have been different, the outcome was eerily similar, as Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic suffered being a man short in their midfield battle with Real Madrid and the experience of Riccardo Montolivo would be have been a sensible option at the Bernabeu.
Of course, if the Azzurri move to a 4-3-3 formation, this would see either Andrea Belotti or Ciro Immobile miss out, a choice Ventura may not be willing to make. The Italy boss is a loyal man, but can’t afford to be sentimental in his quest to reach the 2018 showpiece in Russia.
In a campaign which absurdly saw two of the last three World Cup winners drawn in the same group, Ventura deserves applause for advocating youth and ushering in a new era of emerging talents.
Now, though, is the time for the Italian to prove he remains the right man for the job.