Superpowers Italy and Holland go head-to-head on Monday in a World Cup warm-up friendly. Except neither of them are going to the tournament in Russia.
For Ronald Koeman’s men, the pain of missing out on a major competition dates back to Euro 2016 when the Oranje failed to even get a play-off berth in qualifying. Meanwhile, opponents on the night Italy will hope their embarrassing and well documented failure to reach Russia is a one-off, as life under new Coach Roberto Mancini begins to take shape.
Of course, 1988 European Championship winners Holland have had a two-year head start and the early signs are positive for one of the continent’s footballing heavyweights. Depending on your stance on international friendlies, whether you considered a non-competitive match a hindrance or a worthwhile run-out, the Netherlands did convincingly dismantle a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal at the end of March, a feat not to be downplayed. The Seleção continue, and quite rightly, to ride the wave of their 2016 exploits and rarely get beaten so handsomely.
Central to the new Oranje side is the defensive bedrock. In £75m Virgil van Dijk, new Inter acquisition Stefan de Vrij and in-demand Matthijs de Ligt, the Netherlands have a backline that could play together for the next decade. Van Dijk is arguably world class, De Vrij offers a sound and consistent presence, but in De Ligt, Holland have a talent that is going to be around for the best part of 20 years. The Ajax starlet will learn besides his two defensive colleagues and is almost certain to become an Oranje captain one day.
Further forward, Gini Wijnaldum and Roma’s Kevin Strootman provide the experience to allow Justin Kluivert to focus on attack, while Memphis Depay is a player reborn with Lyon in France. The Netherlands have some way to go to reach the sides of former glories, but there is talent in the ranks. Under an advocate for youth in Koeman, there is certainly cause for optimism and Euro 2020 should be a realistic target.
Elsewhere, Mancini’s reign got off to a steady start, beating Saudi Arabia 2-1 and then falling 3-1 to a star-studded France. The main talking point of the former Inter man’s opening few weeks as CT was the inclusion of Nice frontman Mario Balotelli. The striker instantly made his mark after nearly four years away from the national side and the Azzurri would probably be looking forward to an opening group clash with South Korea had the 27-year-old been selected.
The inexplicable decision to ignore his talents while Manolo Gabbiadini and Ciro immobile, for all his league credentials, toiled against a below average Sweden side continues to cause mass uproar in the country and it’s imperative as the standout striker in the national set-up, the Number 9 shirt should be Balotelli’s for the foreseeable future.
Promisingly, Mancini has opted for a similarly youthful first squad and the excitement is beginning to return in Italy. In Jorginho, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Marco Verratti, the Azzurri have three outstanding technicians and it’s down to the Manchester City title winning Manager to mould them in to a compatible trio.
On the wings, Mancini is spoiled for choice, and will enjoy watching Federico Bernardeschi, Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Chiesa and Matteo Politano tussle it out for the two berths either side of Balotelli. Defensively, new skipper Leonardo Bonucci must usher in Alessio Romagnoli, Mattia Caldara and Daniele Rugani as his successors.
Italy will struggle without legendary quartet Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, but the outlook appears bright. The key, now, is to ensure each friendly is approached in the correct manner, as the Azzurri have long discredited the ties, and this was the beginning of their downfall.
The glitz and glamour may be missing, but the Netherlands and Italy both owe it to their proud nations and the footballing world to ensure they bounce back as swiftly as possible.