Play-offs loom for Italy after comprehensive World Cup defeat to Spain in Madrid

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Having been run over by a high-speed train at the Bernabeu on Saturday night, Italy badly need to win and to win convincingly when they face Israel in another Group G qualifier in Reggio Emilio on Tuesday night.
 
A defeat by Spain in Madrid was always a logical possibility but the comprehensive manner of Italy’s capitulation in a 3-0 rout has inevitably prompted a deal of nationwide dismay and soul-searching. This defeat ended a 56-match unbeaten run of Italian World Cup and European Championship qualifiers that goes back to a  loss to France 11 years ago.
 
A little over 12 months ago, Italy deservedly saw off Spain with an emphatic 2-0 second round win at Euro 2016. One year later, was it possible that they could be be so tactically, technically and mentally overwhelmed by the same Spain? For the second time in five months, following Juve’s Cardiff defeat by Real Madrid, Spanish football delivered a devastating lesson to its Italian rivals.
 
Fortunately for them, Italy live to fight another day. Devastating as this result was, a number of mitigating factors should be borne in mind. For a start, if you have watched Italian football as long as your correspondent has, then you will know all too well that Italian teams, club or national, rarely play well in September. In the aftermath of the Bernabeu debacle, there has been a deluge of inevitable media and fan criticism, aimed alternatively at coach Giampiero Ventura, goalkeeper Buffon, Napoli winger Insigne, Milan defender Bonucci and at others.   
 
For our part, we would humbly point out that a September date for what was always going to be by far Italy’s toughest game of the Group was already a serious problem.   Not for nothing, coach Ventura had argued, in vain, for an earlier than usual start to the Serie A season in order to have his squad that bit fitter. Given the long, hot Italian summer, this was never going to happen but the end result was that, even if Spanish football started this year on the same weekend as Italian football, the Spaniards still looked a deal sharper and fitter.
 
One year ago, when Italy struggled to an embarrassing 1-1 Turin draw with Spain, many critics (including your correspondent) felt that Ventura had been too  conservative, too “Italian” in his tactics. This time, in a do or die situation in which Italy had to win the game, Ventura cannot be faulted for lack of courage.   
 
Using a daring 4-2-4 line-up, Ventura threw every attacking ace at his disposal into the game, fielding an attack composed of Candreva and Insigne, flanking Immobile and Belotti. All in all, these are four of the best and currently most in-form attackers in Italian football.
 
Unfortunately for Ventura and Italy, his gamble totally failed. Over-run in midfield, Italy soon found themselves under relentless pressure in defence whilst 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 similar, seemingly impossible situations. Anyone who recalls Italy’s Euro 2000 semi-final defeat of hosts Holland in Amsterdam will know what I mean.
 
This time, however, Italy shot themselves in the foot after only 13 minutes and in a most unexpected way. This happened when Real Madrid schemer Isco stepped up to take the second of two, edge of area free kicks in as many minutes. His not so fiercely struck free kick was relatively central yet Italian icon, 39-year-old goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, looked ponderously slow in his failed attempt at a save.
 
One of the most difficult questions to emerge from this defeat now concerns Buffon.   Have the years finally caught up on a player who, for much of the last 20 years, has been one of the best ‘keepers in the world? This is not a question that many were asking after the Euro 2016 championships in France last summer, nor indeed after Juve’s run through to the Champions League final last season. However, painful as it is, the question now presents itself.
 
One imagines that, for the time being, Buffon and Ventura will both put this one in their respective pipes, smoke it and hope for a return to normal service. Yet, the almost heretical question still must be asked. Is it wise to consider going to Russia 2018 (if Italy do indeed qualify) with an ageing Buffon or has the time not come to consider promoting his obvious heir, AC Milan’s Gigio Donnarumma?
 
The sight of a less than composed Buffon, moments after that opening goal, failing to control a sharp pass back to him from Marco Verratti and conceding a corner kick only underlined the sense of concern. Buffon will doubtless be the man in goal against Israel on Tuesday night but for how much longer?
 
Other surprise Italian shortcomings concerned iconic defender Leo Bonucci and in-form schemer Lorenzo Insigne. Deprived of service, the latter had little or no impact on the game whilst defender Bonucci may still be absorbing the effects of his surprise move from Juventus to AC Milan. Furthermore, the choice of Atalanta’s Leonardo Spinazzola at left back represented yet another questionable gamble, given that this was the player’s first competitive game of the season. His defensive difficulties meant that he had little chance to offer attacking support to Insigne down the left, whilst he ended an exhausting game, down with cramps.
 
In the end, it has to be borne in mind that Italy went down to a sublime Spain in which two goal Isco had the game of a lifetime. On top of that, guys like Ramos, Piquè, Iniesta, Busquets, Silva, Asensio, Morata (3rd goal) et al more than lived up to their justifiably huge reputations. A lot of teams would have gone into melt-down when faced with the sheer technical, tactical and physical quality of Julen Lopetegui’s wonderful team. A lot of teams, yes, but in the past Italian teams have done better.
 
Clearly, all is not lost. A place in the November play-offs beckons, given that Italy are still four points clear of third-placed Albania. If Italy win their next two games, at home to Israel and then to Macedonia, then their final Group game away to Albania will be irrelevant since they will have already qualified.
 
After that, though, come the play-offs in which sides such as Sweden, Bosnia, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could emerge as their opponents after the seeded draw. These are not exactly Brazil, Argentina, Germany or, God Forgive, Spain. Still, the play-offs represent a huge test, even for Italy. The road to Russia has just started to rise.