If Italian fans were hoping for a big reaction after the misery they endured in Spain, they will have been sorely disappointed. Even against more humble opposition, the much-criticised 4-2-4 formation failed to deliver the tonic the tifosi craved after a performance which had left them feeling distinctly queasy. And yet, somehow or another, by the end of the night against Israel, they were a shaky step closer to the World Cup next summer.
For those of us who have followed Azzurri qualification campaigns for any length of time, this stuttering sort of progress is really no surprise. Over the years we have got used to watching them stumble across the finish line like Dorando Pietri at the London Olympics in 1908. If it is thorough thrashings and comfortable conquests you crave, you really should be looking elsewhere.
But where did this double-header really leave us, other than one point away from a play-off place? The bubbly enthusiasm of a run of good results seems to have fizzled out quicker than cheap prosecco. Has Giampiero Ventura gone from being the right man to bring through young stars to a Coach way out of his depth? Have his tactics hamstrung his best performers or have they let him down on the big stage? Or is the inconvenient truth that this Italy side is simply not good enough?
Some people will tell you any or possibly all of the above and - quite probably - most vociferously. Then they will pick out their least favourite performer - usually according to their club allegiances - and have a go at them too. These are the pastimes Italian fans and pundits have been indulging in since the game began. Some things, like Gigi Buffon’s passion for the national anthem, will never change.
Yet there were some lessons to be learned in the evidence before our eyes if we care to make a more measured judgment. The formation used singularly failed to get the best out of a squad which is surely capable of better than it delivered against Spain and, for the first 45 minutes at least, against Israel. The only options are for the players to adjust, the personnel to change or the Coach to show greater flexibility. You will hear plenty of loud shouts for each and every option.
Personally, I would not hit the outright panic button just yet. Just as Italy did not look like future World Cup winners to me during their more convincing displays, I am not sure they are quite the no-hopers some have branded them after recent performances. I could make the same argument for Ventura. Haven’t we been here before quite a few times, after all?
History has taught us that, with the Azzurri more than most teams, it doesn’t matter how they get to a major competition - simply that they manage to get there. Often their most limp and lifeless qualification campaigns can be the precursor to wonderful tilts at major titles. They have made a habit of confounding those who have written them off in quite spectacular fashion.
Italian Federation president Carlo Tavecchio described it as an apocalyptic event if Italy were to fail to qualify and, although it was a little over-dramatic, he had a point. The play-offs are where this team - and Ventura - should finally be judged.
Winning a group with Spain in it was always likely to be no more than a 50-50 bet at best, but failure to beat one of the other group runners-up would be truly disastrous. There will be those who can tell you with certainty already that this Coach or these players are not good enough to achieve that goal and make any impact in Russia, but I am not one of them. Time has taught me that such absolutes can often leave you with a significant slice of frittata on your face. And, just as often, their purveyors are willing to switch opinion swiftly if events begin to make them look foolish.
Beating Israel was never going to dispel the doubts which brewed up in Spain, but at least, in their usual half-baked way, Italy got the job done. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t emphatic but - with Albania failing to beat Macedonia - it was just about enough.
The law of minimo sforzo - minimum effort - was more or less observed. And, if these latest displays are anything to go by, don’t expect the play-off games to be anything other than close. This is the Italian way, folks, and it has taken them an awful long way an awful lot of times before.
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