World Soccer - - Contents - Paddy Agnew

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

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