Italy in real trouble after Sweden loss piles pressure on Gian Piero Ventura
"What rotten luck," Andrea Pirlo sighed.
A few days after playing the final game of his career, "il Maestro" was on the sofa with friends, glass of wine in hand, watching his country play Sweden in the World Cup playoff from the comfort of his New York loft. Matteo Darmian had just hit the post as Italy searched for an equaliser against Sweden. It was in vain.
Aside from another chance that the Manchester United full-back set up for Andrea Belotti in the opening minutes, a free header he'd usually bury at the club level, the Azzurri created little of note and lost 1-0. To labour the point, Belotti touched the ball just five times before his withdrawal shortly after the hour mark in Stockholm. Whether he should have played in the first place after racing back from a knee ligament injury is another issue.
Where Huddersfield troubled Victor Lindelof, Italy couldn't at the Friends Arena. His centre-back partner, the veteran Andreas Granqvist, adjudged too slow even for Serie A's adagio tempo in his time at Genoa, rarely had to jog, let alone sprint. Ciro Immobile, the current Capocannoniere, never ran at him, perhaps mindful that the muscle he tweaked 10 days ago couldn't handle the sudden bursts of acceleration he makes when in peak condition.
It was the meekest of displays from Italy in the sort of backs-against-the-wall circumstances where they traditionally produce their best. An old Juventus social media campaign came to mind; Pirlo was not impressed.
On the eve of the game, his old roommate Daniele De Rossi promised Italy's legs wouldn't "tremble" when it came to the crunch tie in Scandinavia, and Giampiero Ventura based his team selection on experience. Gigi Buffon, the "BBC" (Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini) and De Rossi have played in World Cup, Champions League and European Championship finals. They have 531 caps between them. But to Pirlo, the Azzurri "seemed like a nervous team playing for a 0-0. That's not enough in Europe," he said.
Obviously, the result was disappointing because it leaves Italy in need of a "minor miracle," according to Pirlo. Worse still, though, was the manner of the defeat.
Italy were pushed around, bullied by a striker playing in Abu Dhabi and another who can't get in Toulouse's first team. They felt the referee, Cuneyt Cakir, let the Swedes get away with too much. Ola Toivonen's elbow broke Bonucci's nose inside 30 seconds. The Milan centre-back thought "a referee with more character" wouldn't have shirked the decision to send a home player off that early. Had VAR been in play, as it is in Serie A, maybe it would have been different.
"I hope we get as many favours from the referee in Italy as they got tonight," Ventura complained.
It made the Swedes laugh. A clip of Chiellini rolling around on the floor, then peeking through his hands to see if he'd got a free-kick, did the rounds on social media. "All I'll say is they were too theatrical. And they're not very good actors," said Marcus Berg. Other than to deflect from their own performance, Pirlo didn't see why Cakir was the focus of Italy's ire. He agreed the referee let too much go, but "to me, it seems reductive to get hung up on these things. The team has to give more. More quality is needed to win these games. In Europe, it's not like in Italy where you get a free kick for the slightest contact."
You have to give credit to Sweden. They wanted to make the game a battle, and Italy let them. The Azzurri took the bait, hook, line and sinker. They allowed Sweden to bring them down to a level where they could beat them. If Italy had made the game about skill, it might have been a different story. After all, they have the better individuals. On the night though, Italy completed just three dribbles. The switch from 4-2-4 to 3-5-2 was supposed to give the Azzurri the edge in midfield, where they had a 3-on-2 in their favour. But you would never have thought it watching the game.
Pirlo's supposed heir, Marco Verratti, once again disappointed on the international stage. With the exception of the odd flash here and there, he has rarely performed as well for Italy as he has for Paris Saint-Germain. To compound matters, the "little Owl" got unnecessarily booked for a challenge 80 metres from goal and is now suspended for the second leg. It speaks volumes about the perception of his international career that many of the papers in Italy concluded he won't be missed.
The reason for reverting to a 3-5-2 went beyond outnumbering Sweden in midfield. It was about reestablishing the same understanding and fluidity Italy showcased at the Euros in 2016. But as Luigi Garlando observed in La Gazzetta dello Sport, "pulling on Superman's suit is not enough to be Superman." Italy resembled the team they were under Antonio Conte only in form, not in content. All the choreography and well-rehearsed routines that were a feature of Italy's play in France remain conspicuous by their absence. It's as if there is no script, just improv.
A year ago, Ventura's justification for leaving the 3-5-2 behind was that Italy's most imaginative players are out wide. In Stockholm, they were crying out for Lorenzo Insigne, but when you play 3-5-2, there is no place for him. The Napoli magician came on for the final 10 minutes -- too late for a player of his talent. Stephan El Shaarawy's presence in the stands also did not go unnoticed. Brilliant for Roma in recent weeks, it was cause of some consternation. As one of Italy's most in-form players, he must be starting, and Ventura's unwillingness to work on a 4-3-3 over the last year, arguably the system that best suits this group of players, has baffled many observers.
Pessimism is rife.
As if the result wasn't already bad enough, what makes the glass look (half) empty is the sensation that 72 hours just isn't enough for them to turn it around. OK, France came back from a 2-0 defeat to Ukraine four years ago to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil, but all the time in the world probably wouldn't be enough for Ventura. The 69-year-old lost face at the Bernabeu in September and has never recovered. He looks out of his depth. The last two months have seen everything unravel. Now Italy is gripped by a Stockholm syndrome of a different kind. Losing to Sweden was a shock, but frankly it came as no surprise after the underwhelming displays at home to Israel and Macedonia.
"It's going to be hard for Ventura to find the right words," Pirlo thinks. "The next two days are going to be intense, full of pressure." Italy have never lost at the San Siro, and Ventura hopes the magic it holds "will take us by the hand" and see the team through to the World Cup. "It's up to you, San Siro," declared La Gazzetta's front-page on Saturday morning, underlining the lack of confidence in the manager and the team.
Pirlo doesn't see it that way. "San Siro can't score," he said. "I've never seen a fan score a goal."
As Marco Bellinazzo, Italy's foremost sport economist, explains, by failing to qualify for the most lucrative World Cup of all time, Italy risk missing out on a figure as high as €100 million in TV revenue, sponsorship deals and prize money. To reach that amount, the Azzurri would have to win the competition -- an outcome that seems unlikely even if they do make it -- but you can see why the president of the FIGC, Carlo Tavecchio, is talking about non-qualification as an "apocalypse."
It's the end of the world as he knows it, and Italy is not feeling fine.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.