MILAN, Italy — There are two possible narratives as Italy prepare for their World Cup date with destiny against Sweden in Milan on Monday.
The first, and the most unpalatable, is that the four-time world champions fail to qualify for Russia 2018 and a curtain falls on the international careers of half the team, including Daniele De Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and the icon that is Gianluigi Buffon.
The second potential storyline is that the Azzurri overturn Friday’s 1-0 first-leg defeat in Stockholm, with a new hero emerging to haul Gian Piero Ventura’s side to the World Cup and avoid the humiliation of missing out on the tournament for the first time since 1958.
Italy’s saviour will not be Marco Verratti, after the Paris Saint-Germain playmaker picked up a yellow card in Sweden that rules him out of the return leg. Perhaps Lorenzo Insigne will step forward, or maybe it will be Torino’s Andrea Belotti, who becomes the face of the new generation.
But whomever the Italians rely upon to inspire them to the victory they need at the San Siro, it cannot be the old heads who make the difference this time. What’s needed is youthful exuberance and audacity, attacking verve rather than defensive organization.
However, recent results suggest they may not have what it takes to overcome an athletic and durable Sweden team. Prior to Friday’s loss, Italy scored just three times in their previous four qualifiers, one of which was a 3-0 thrashing in Spain that effectively ended their hopes of automatic qualification.
The reason Italy are in this predicament is because the wave of new talent has not been good enough to wash away the old guard. The country is desperate for the baton to be passed, and there is no time like the present for Belotti, Insigne & Co. to prove they are worthy of leading the Italians into a new era.
No country has won more European Under-21 Championships than Italy’s five, which is one more than Spain, yet the last of those triumphs came in 2004 — De Rossi and Barzagli were central figures — and the subsequent decline at that age-group level has coincided with a slowing production line of talent into the senior team.
It is why seven players in Italy’s starting line-up against Sweden were 30 or older; Buffon (39), Barzagli (36) and De Rossi (34) are all survivors from the 2006 World Cup-winning squad. Ventura, who turns 70 in January, has done little to inject the energy of younger players into his team, with the coach surprising many by omitting Roma’s in-form Stephan El Shaarawy.
Ahead of the second leg, Ventura promised he would “change something,” but while many of the problems are of his own making, the veteran coach cannot be blamed for a lack of emerging talent.
There is no new Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero or Andrea Pirlo waiting to take the world by storm, just as there is no new Gianfranco Zola, Francesco Totti or Gianluca Vialli out there. As for Mario Balotelli, Italy appears to have given up on the maverick Nice forward.
Belotti is arguably the best-placed to become Italy’s new hero, but he has lost sharpness after being sidelined for three weeks with a knee injury last month, and the Sweden tie has perhaps come too soon for him.
The 23-year-old has hit four goals in 12 appearances for Italy, but three of those have come against Liechtenstein and the other was vs. Macedonia, so he has yet to prove he can deliver on the international stage against the best.
Sweden do not fall into that category, but they are a considerable step up. So if he is fit enough to play two games in four days, Belotti has the perfect opportunity to dispel any doubts over his top-level ability.
But he missed Italy’s best chance in the first leg when he headed wide from close range, so perhaps he will fall short because he simply isn’t as good as those players who went before him.
The same applies to Italy. As successful as they have been in the past, there are no free passes to a World Cup, and time may run out on Ventura and his players in Milan on Monday night.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_