It might seem strange to suggest that Italy approach tonight’s World Cup qualifier away to Israel in Haifa with a certain trepidation but that is indeed the reality. Notwithstanding the obvious gap in tradition, track record and squad strength between the two teams, Italy are approaching this game with a lot of diffidence.
Italy might have won the World Cup four times whilst Israel have only qualified once for a finals tournament, in Mexico 1970. Italy are currently ranked 10th in the FIFA world rankings, whilst Israel are 76th. Italy field a team based on the best of Serie A, in particular champions Juventus. By comparison, the Israeli squad comprises players from the Israeli league reinforced by journeymen such as the Brighton pair, midfielder Beram Kyal, striker Tomer Hemed, Glasgow Celtic midfielder Nir Bitton and, of course, their captain, Eran Zahavi, currently with Guangzhou in China.
All of this would suggest that, in the context of an awkward group which also involves Spain, Albania, Macedonia and Lichtenstein, this is an away game that Italy have to win to get their qualifying run off to the right start. Further down the line, apart obviously from Lichtenstein, the other teams could all present thorny problems.
Even if Italy come into this game on the back of an excellent Euro 2016 in France, where they were eliminated in a penalty shoot-out by Germany in the quarter finals, Italian concern is understandable. The point is, of course, that this is a new Italy under the management of Giampiero Ventura who took over from the Chelsea bound Antonio Conte after Euro 2016. Worse still, Ventura’s debut with Italy registered an emphatic 3-1 defeat by France in a friendly in Bari last week.
68-year-old Ventura, formerly coach to Torino, has been saying this weekend that Israel are not France and that he expects a much better performance tonight. Commentators will argue that the loss to France owed much to the superior match fitness of the French squad. September qualifiers are always a bit of a lottery for Italy since Italian clubs tend to start their seasonal training that bit later than their European counterparts.
That could well be but the defeat by France left your correspondent wondering if more than match fitness was missing from the Italian team. Could it be that the manic drive and determination that Conte brought to the Italian cause will go missing under “grandad” Ventura?
Ventura, whose Torino often played some memorably competitive football in Serie A, has every chance to prove us wrong tonight. With central defender Leonardo Bonucci returning to play alongside Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and goalkeeper Gigi Buffon in an all Juventus defence, Italy should regain their normal ultra-solid defensive look.
Bonucci was not available for last Thursday’s game against France because he had stayed at home to be at the bedside of his child, Matteo, who was seriously ill. With Matteo now apparently on the road to recovery, Bonucci rang up Ventura to say that, if he was still wanted, he would make himself available for tonight. Bonucci has a particularly strong link with Ventura since he first rose to national prominence at Bari in the 2009-2010 season when Ventura was the club coach.
By and large, Ventura has thus far stuck with the Conte squad, although his midfield tonight may feature three players who missed on out on Euro 2016, namely Giacomo Bonaventura (Milan), Marco Verratti (PSG) and Luca Antonelli (Milan). Up front, however, Ventura looks likely to start with the familiar pairing of Brazilian Eder (Inter) and Graziano Pelle (Shandong) in a 3-5-2 formation.
Speaking on Sunday, Ventura admitted that he knew little about Israel, adding that what mattered was the readiness of his own side. He even conceded that most obvious of all considerations about Italy, namely that friendlies are one thing but competitive games such as tonight are another.
For Israel, captain Zahavi summed it up when he told the Jerusalem Post last week that a draw would be “an excellent result”. For new coach Elisha Levy, who replaced Eli Gutman after a disappointing Euro 2016 qualifying campaign in which Israel picked up just four of a possible 21 points in their last seven games, this is a tough start. However, the former Maccabi Haifa coach says that in football “anything is possible”, adding;
“I’m really excited. Nothing can prepare you for this,” he added. “I have coached in the Champions League and won championships but guiding the Israel national team is a calling.”
ISRAEL: (4-5-1) Harush; Dasa, Gershon, Yeini, Davidzada; Kayal, Biton, Natko, Saief, Dabour; Zahavi
ITALY: (3-5-2) Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Candreva, Parolo, Verratti, Bonaventura, Antonelli; Eder, Pellé