Having been run over by a high-speed train at the Bernabeu in their Group G qualifier against Spain, Italy will have to settle for second spot in their group and a place in the play-offs.
Defeat in Madrid was always possible, but the comprehensive manner of Italy’s capitulation in a 3-0 rout prompted a great deal of nationwide dismay and soul-searching. The defeat ended the
Azzurri’s 56-match unbeaten run in World Cup and European Championship qualifiers – a record stretching back to a loss to France 11 years ago.
A little over 12 months ago, Italy saw off Spain with an emphatic 2-0 secondround win at Euro 2016. A year on, how could they be so tactically, technically and mentally overwhelmed by the same opponents? For the second time in five months, following Juventus’ defeat by Real Madrid in the Champions League Final, Spanish football delivered a devastating lesson to its Italian rivals.
In the aftermath of the Bernabeu debacle there was a deluge of criticism, aimed alternatively at coach Giampiero Ventura, keeper Gianluigi Buffon, Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne, Milan defender Leonardo Bonucci and others.
When Italy drew 1-1 with Spain in Turin a year earlier, many critics felt that Ventura had been too conservative in his tactics. This time, in a do-or-die situation in which his side had to win, Ventura did not lack courage.
Adopting a daring 4-2-4 set-up, he threw every attacking ace at his disposal into the game, fielding a front four that consisted of Antonio Candreva and Insigne flanking Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti. All in all, they were four of the best and most in-form attackers currently in Italian football.
Unfortunately for Ventura, the gamble failed totally. Out-manned in midfield, Italy found themselves under relentless pressure in defence, while the front four simply did not see enough of the ball.
In the past, Italian sides have stuck at it and managed to ride out seemingly impossible situations. But this time they shot themselves in the foot after just 13 minutes, with Isco’s not-so-fiercely struck free-kick beating a 39-year-old Buffon who looked ponderous in his failed attempt at a save.
One of the most difficult questions to emerge from that defeat concerns Buffon and whether the years have finally caught up with a player who, for much of the past 20 years, has been one of the best keepers in the world. It is not a question that many were asking after Euro 2016 in France last summer, nor indeed after Juve’s run to the Champions League Final this year. However, painful as it is, the question now presents itself.
One imagines that, for the time being, Buffon and Ventura will both hope for a return to normal service. Yet, the almost heretical question must still be asked: if Italy do qualify for the 2018 finals, are they better going to Russia with an ageing Buffon or has the time come to promote Milan’s Gigio Donnarumma?
Other shortcomings concerned iconic defender Bonucci and in-form schemer Insigne. Deprived of service, the latter had little or no impact, while Bonucci may still be absorbing the effects of his surprise move from Juventus to Milan.
If Italy do qualify for the 2018 finals, are they better going to Russia with an ageing Buffon or has the time come to promote Milan’s Gigio Donnarumma?
Furthermore, the choice of Atalanta’s Leonardo Spinazzola at left-back represented a gamble, given that this was the player’s first competitive game of the season. His defensive difficulties meant he had little chance to offer attacking support to Insigne down the left, while he finished an exhausting game with cramp.
In the end, it has to be remembered that Italy went down to a sublime Spain in which two-goal Isco had the game of a lifetime, and a lot of teams would have gone into meltdown when faced with the quality of Julen Lopetegui’s side.
A lot of teams, yes, but in the past Italian teams have done better.
Clearly, all is not lost. A place in the play-offs beckons. But while potential opponents such as Sweden, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland are not Brazil, Argentina, Germany or Spain, November’s two-legged affair will still represent a huge test.
Opener...Isco scores for Spain
At risk...have the years finally caught up with Gianluigi Buffon?
Gamble...Leonardo Spinazzola (left) was picked at full-back