Question marks over Italy coach Giampiero Ventura ahead of Sweden play-off

Chloe Beresford by Chloe Beresford / 10 November 2017, 15:00

"We are Italy," read the simple headline on Friday morning’s edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s famous pink sports newspaper. The front cover showed a picture of Italy’s veteran captain Gianluigi Buffon and images of four World Cup triumphs for the Azzurri, in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006.

But they now face a two-legged World Cup Playoff against Sweden, with the away leg this evening and a home return on Monday at San Siro, with Gazzetta remarking that Italy not going to Russia would be “unthinkable”. Their football pedigree - one highlighted by that aforementioned front page - is obvious, yet question marks over their Coach Giampiero Ventura means that victory against Sweden is by no means a given.

The 69-year-old Coach said he had “never considered the idea of not going to the World Cup” in his press conference on Monday, but perhaps all this bravado is not such a good idea. Iceland showed everyone just what a written-off side can do at Euro 2016, and Sweden are making the same kind of noises ahead of this match.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is of course ruled out with his ongoing injury, but the absence of their star player could only spur them on even further. Swedish Serie A legend Kurt Hamrin highlighted this in a recent interview, warning against Italian complacency. “Nowadays, Sweden look like more of a team and Italy must not underestimate them,” the 82-year-old told Il Mattino. “Don’t forget they beat France in qualifying and eliminated the Netherlands.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist, himself a former Genoa player. “There’s a really good atmosphere amongst the group,” the 32-year-old defender said in his pre-match press conference. “We’re doing really well, there’s total harmony amongst us.”

A basic 4-4-2 system has worked wonders for Coach Jan Andersen, much the opposite of Italy’s Ventura. The veteran boss was panned for deploying the suicidal 4-2-4 tactic against Spain’s all-powerful midfield in the qualifiers, and seemed incredulous that his side was soundly beaten 3-0 when everyone else could see it coming a mile away. He defended the indefensible when pundits called for a change to 3-5-2, but now seems to have made a u-turn, and looks ready to set that against Sweden this weekend.

Then there was the issue of Jorginho. The 25-year-old Napoli midfielder has been the standout player in the league in terms of passing since Maurizio Sarri arrived at the club, a pivotal cog in the highly-lauded “Sarrismo” style of play. Such a midfielder – who plays a simple but highly-effective pass and move game - would fit into almost every system, but Ventura was inexplicably unconvinced.

“I am surprised that everyone is so amazed by this, because we don’t play with a methodical midfield,” he told Il Mattino when asked about why he continued to ignore Jorginho last month. “He is the best in that role, but in my Nazionale, currently such a role does not exist. I can’t call him up if he there’s no room for him to play.”

Italy fans would finally see what they had desired for what seemed like an eternity when Ventura relented and called up the Napoli star for the games with Sweden, but his explanation for doing so was puzzling at best. “I called up Jorginho because he’s doing well,” he told his Azzurri press conference this week.

Hadn’t he been “doing well” all along though? What had happened to concerns over having no room for him to play in the squad? Had these issues merely disappeared? All these are questions that there is simply no answer to, and it leads to worries over their forthcoming matches with Sweden.

The chaos created by Ventura with the random nature of his comments, team selection and tactics could be exploited by a well-drilled and well-organised side. Yes, Italy have won four World Cups and yes, on paper they are the better side. But none of that will help them when they go toe-to-toe with Sweden this weekend under the stewardship of a man who seems to be well out of his depth.

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