Italy’s untimely exit from the qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup (supposed to be held in Qatar) will sound the death knell for many of their players. It is a shame that it came down to the dying stages of their qualification semi-final match against unheralded North Macedonia on 24 March.
Having held the game for a long time, the Azzurri failed to make it count and it was a stunning strike by Aleksandar Trajkovski from miles away that ensured that the men in blue would fail to make it to the FIFA World Cup finals for the second time in a row. They had also missed the bus for the 2018 edition held in Russia, which was won by France.
Italy drew their previous qualification game against Switzerland, and many critics have noted the impotence of their attacking players to rise to the occasion. The unlikely winners of the UEFA European Championships 2020 will have a difficult time digesting the fact that they will not be able to participate in Qatar.
Manager Roberto Mancini did everything he could to keep the disappointment out of this voice as he spoke to reporters after the game, but the fact remains that the Azzurri failed to capitalise on the chances that came their way.
Is it time for manager Roberto Mancini to step down?
There is no doubt that in football, especially at the international level, the head of the manager is the first to roll if a country fails to make the grade. Italy have suffered a terrible shock by not qualifying for the World Cup finals and even their worst critic would admit the fact that they deserve better than this. However, is it fair for all the blame for this disaster to be levelled upon the former Manchester City man?
Mancini took over the reins of the Italy national team post their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals which were held in Russia, and guided them to decent heights. There is no doubt that the peak of his achievements with the national team will be winning the 2020 European Championships, but the low of not qualifying for Qatar will sting him heavily.
His tactics were criticised by many in the Italian press, but he divided opinion on his player selection policies. Overall, Mancini remains likeable, and his tactical acumen has not yet been torn apart by pundits and experts from across the world.
He employed the safe 4–3–3 formation for Italy in the Euros and that worked out very well for them. Dismantling the favourites England in the final at Wembley in July last year, Mancini took home the Cup that he coveted so much. Following a 1–1 draw, the Azzurri took the game to penalties and won it by a 3–2 scoreline. Earlier, defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Luke Shaw had netted for either side to level the scores. The Blues could not be shaken and England had to taste defeat on that eventful night.
What needs to be understood is the fact that Mancini alone is not responsible for the plight that Italy find themselves in. From being crowned the champions of Europe in July last year to finding themselves not going to Qatar for the World Cup finals now, life has come a full circle for them, albeit in a descending manner. Mancini has tried his best to infuse some experience into the youthful side that he often finds himself entrusted with, and no blame can be levelled upon him for not trying hard enough or not giving enough opportunities to youngsters in the game.
Where did it go wrong for Italy in qualifying for the 2022 World Cup finals?
The fact remains that Italy won just three games out of the eight they played in the qualification competition for the 2022 FIFA World Cup finals. This is simply unacceptable, given that that lone win came over Lithuania in April last year. For a year and more, the Azzurri have not won a single game in this competition, and perhaps deserve to exit from it. Competition at this level is unforgivable and it is often the fittest who survives. Those who are slow on the uptake are often left behind. Sadly, it had to be Italy this time around.
At the end of the league stage, Italy finished in the second spot of the group table with 16 points to their name. Switzerland topped the group with 18 points. Italy, being placed second, had the opportunity to go again and get themselves through by a qualifying playoff. For this, they had to defeat North Macedonia in a virtual semi final. This they failed to do after controlling the game for the entire 90 minutes and failing to land a goal to their name. At the end, North Macedonia struck in spectacular fashion spelling an end to the dreams of the Azzurri.
Italy did not have any top opponents in their qualification group and yet failed to top the charts. This is regrettable indeed, and one that requires a deep inquest. There is no way that the champions of Europe should be intimidated by the likes of Switzerland, Northern Ireland and Bulgaria among others, but that is what happened. The result is that the entire country is now on the verge of tears as they fail to qualify for the World Cup finals for the second time in a row.
Where do Italy’s weaknesses lie?
Italy, as a footballing nation, have always had strong defensive units. This has been the case with the current team as well. Starting from goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and going on towards star defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Leonardo Spinazzolla, Emerson, Francesco Acerbi, Alessandrio Bastoni and Mattio di Sciglio, one cannot point out a single weak spot in this aspect of their game. Of course, Spinazzolla got injured during the European Championships and could not play a major role in the World Cup qualifiers, but former Chelsea man Emerson did a very good job as his deputy.
Goalkeeper Donnarumma too has good backups in the forms of Salvatore Sirigu of Genoa and Alex Meret of Napoli. Therefore, it is safe to say that the Azzurri are in comfortable hands in their defensive unit. Accepted that the likes of Chiellini and Bonucci, who both ply their trade for Juventus in the Italian Serie A league competition, are growing older by the day, but there are ready replacements in the likes of Acerbi and Bastoni, who have both lived up to the potential that they have shown constantly.
Alessandro Florenzi and Gianluca Mancini, who have been called up to the national side now and then, have not failed to perform or showcase their potential either. The firecracker that is Giovani di Lorenzo is known to everyone who watched the European Championships with a keen eye. Therefore, it is safe to say that Italy do not lack for anything in their defensive department. If they do have weaknesses, they lie elsewhere.
Their midfield, which is manned by commander-general Jorginho, is one of the best in the entire continent, if not the world. The likes of Matteo Verratti ply their trade here constantly alongside the likes of Lorenzo Pellegrini, Manuel Locatelli and Bryan Cristante. Youngster Sandro Tonali of AC Milan, who has often been likened to the great Andrea Pirlo, was handed a cap by manager Mancini recently, and he did not disappoint either.
Italy’s midfield is fluid, and their players are often known to interchange their positions with each other keeping in mind where the game is heading. Chelsea’s Jorginho is one of the finest in the business at doing this, and whenever he marshals his country’s midfield along with Verratti of Paris Saint Germain, their opponents need to be on their toes. Inter Milan’s Nicolo Barella often offers a breath of fresh air.
It needs no saying that Italy have historically suffered in the attacking department. However, they have some fantastic personnel there who are renowned to take the game home out of nowhere. The likes of Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne and Andrea Belotti are feared all across Europe, and their efforts made Mancini’s lifting the European Championships in last summer so much easier.
Domenico Berardi is as good as anyone in the business when it comes to being a second striker. The two Federicos- Chiesa and Bernardeschi, are extremely gifted and artistic players who can turn any game on its head. The former is especially well-known for his acrobatics and clinical nature in front of goal.
What is the way out for the Azzurri?
Injuries played a crucial part in taking Italy out of this competition and there is no one to blame in particular. Manager Mancini did a great job and it will not be fair to the entire Italian footballing fraternity if he decides to step down. One thing that led the Azzurri down constantly was their coy nature in front of goal. If they had been more assertive and imaginative in their approach, they might have well been heading to Qatar.