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Why are Italy out of the 2022 World Cup? How the Euro 2020 champions became a national embarrassment

The i 3/25/2022 Alasdair Mackenzie

ROME — When Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, it was described as the apocalypse. But the end of the world wasn’t supposed to have a sequel.

Nevertheless, Azzurri fans woke up on Friday morning struggling to compute the reality of a second successive play-off humiliation.

Falling to Sweden over two legs in 2017 was one thing, but losing at home to 67th-ranked North Macedonia, while reigning European champions, is another matter entirely.

Corriere dello Sport’s headline was “Into Hell”, while Tuttosport simply splashed: “NOOOOOOO!”

Apocalypse talk felt fitting in the hours after full-time. The streets were soon deserted, the silence occasionally punctuated by a revving engine or distant honk.

Discarded beer cups and newspapers were the only reminder that a football match had taken place at all.

But there’s no escaping the terrible truth for Italy. As the inquest begins, the central question remains: how did Italy go from European champions to national embarrassments in nine months?

They can’t score goals

Italy’s attack has long been a bone of contention and particularly the striker selection, given Ciro Immobile’s struggles to replicate his prolific Lazio form at international level.

But Thursday’s performance shone a light on the fact that the goal drought is a collective failure.

Italy had 32 attempts to North Macedonia’s four, but it took former Palermo striker Aleksandar Trajkovski, a 29-year-old old journeyman striker playing for Saudi side Al-Fahya, to show them how it is done with an arrowed finish in stoppage time.

The very worst of Italy’s wastefulness was on display here, but it has been a major problem since the Euros.

They drew four of their final five qualifying games, only beating Lithuania. In the first two, against Bulgaria and Switzerland, Italy needed a combined 38 shots to score one goal. In the final two, draws with the Swiss and Northern Ireland, it was one goal from 24 attempts.

Even when Jorginho had chances to win both Switzerland games from the penalty spot, he missed.

There has been a staggering lack of composure across the board from Italy’s strikers, wingers and midfielders, regardless of who has been selected.

They finished the qualifying group with 13 goals in eight games, but seven came against Lithuania.

No plan B

Roberto Mancini has been steadfast with the 4-3-3 formation that took Italy to a world record 37-match unbeaten run and Euro 2020 glory.

The manager has refused to change his tactics, other than a very occasional deployment of a false nine.

Teams have worked Italy out by now, and lower-ranked sides are confident of doing what North Macedonia did: let them have the ball, watch them get frustrated as it fails to go in, and strike when you get your chance.

Mancini changed his entire front three on Thursday in search of a goal, but not the system.

It’s true that they have lost two game-changing players in Leonardo Spinazzola and Federico Chiesa to long-term injury, but questions must be asked about the strategy given the quality in this Italy squad compared to the teams that have stopped them lately.

Complacency set in

Italy’s Euro 2020 victory was built on a fun-loving team spirit; the pressure was off, and players were encouraged to express themselves.

But the same players have been complacent since that unexpected triumph.

Italy comfortably beat Switzerland in the group stage last summer, but were twice held by them in recent months, while they took two points from Bulgaria and Northern Ireland.

There was an apparent assumption that they would qualify after winning the Euros – how could the European champions not?

But game-changing individual errors have crept in – Jorginho’s uncharacteristic penalty misses being the most renowned – and Mancini’s comments this week suggested confidence may have strayed into arrogance.

“The objective is not to go to the World Cup, but to win it,” he said.

He may have been going for “admirably ambitious”, but now he looks painfully naive. It was symptomatic of the team’s attitude in the last nine months.

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