New Italian coach, 68-year-old veteran Giampiero Ventura, went some way to ridding himself of the ghost of his predecessor, Chelsea coach Antonio Conte, when his Italy opened their World Cup group with an impressive, if at times difficult, 3-1 away win over Israel in Haifa on Monday night.
Given that the side Ventura picked to play Israel was very much the same as that which Conte guided to a quarter final Euro 2016 defeat by Germany, you might argue that much of the merit for this victory also goes to Conte. Yet, some of the decisions taken by Ventura during a final 35 minutes when Italy were a man down following the sending-off of defender Giorgio Chiellini showed that “grandad” Ventura remains a wily old fox, well able to call the shots at this, for him, new level.
On paper, Italy are far ahead of Israel, 10th as opposed to 76th in FIFA world rankings. So it looked after half an hour with Italy 2-0 ahead and apparently in total control of the game following goals from Graziano Pelle and Antonio Candreva.
At the point, however, and for the second consecutive game, Chiellini made a total mess of a clearance and ended up playing Israel’s Ben Chaim clean through. The Maccabi Tel Aviv striker made the most of his moment, scoring the goal of the night with a delicious 36th minute chip over Gigi Buffon..
With the 30,000 strong Haifa crowd now thoroughly aroused, Israel went at it hammer and tongs, even creating a couple of equaliser chances. Isreaeli excitement and the sense that they might still get something out of this game became even stronger when the unfortunate Chiellini picked up his second yellow card of the night in the 55th minute, after he had clusmily knocked over Brighton striker Tomer Homed.
It was at this point that Ventura made two moves that indicate he will be more than able to handle himself at this level. His first move was obvious enough as he took off midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura, replacing him with West Ham defender Angelo Ogbonna to compensate for the absence of Chiellini.
Five minutes later, Ventura pulled off right-sided attacking midfielder Antonio Candreva replacing him not with a defender but with an equally attacking, right-sided midfielder in Roma’s Alessandro Florenzi. Better still when he made his third change of the night, taking off tired striker Eder in the 60th minute, he resisted the temptation to shore up his defence by bringing on someone like defender Davide Astori or midfielder Riccardo Montolivo.
No, he opted to bring on one of his favourite sons, Lazio striker Ciro Immobile, a player who first rose to prominence with Ventura’s Torino team of three seasons back. Ventura’s calculation was that, with an enthusiastic Israel pressing forward in search of an equaliser, his opponents could clearly be vulnerable on the counter attack. Hence, keep two men up front.
Ventura was rewarded with an opportunist 83rd minute goal from Immobile which rounded off the night’s business. A long kick out from Buffon, a nod on from the excellent Pelle and boom, Immobile had scored, thus confirming his special relationship with “Grandad” Ventura.
“When you are down to ten men, it is always difficult, all the more so in a World Cup qualifier. We had five minutes of a wobbly after their goal but then we could have wrapped it up even earlier than we did”, said Ventura afterwards, adding:
“We wanted to take the field as a team. We played and suffered as a team and I believe this was a real team victory”.
So then, it is now on to Turin, Ventura’s old hunting ground, for one of the key games in this group, namely Italy v Spain at the Juventus stadium on October 6th. There seems little doubt but that this group will be fought out by Spain and Italy, so this re-run of the Euro 2016 second round game which saw Italy beat Spain 2-0 promises to be a cracker.
Better still, Ventura points out that one month later, Italy will be a fitter team. If we get as good a game as the Euro 2016 clash in Paris, no one will be complaining. More importantly, if Italy were to repeat this summer’s victory, the Italian team will definitely be Ventura’s and no one else’s. Antonio Who?