Phantom of World Cup playoffs whispers in the ears of Italy once again

Azzurri in great form but once again face a tricky qualifier - this time against Switzerland - as they hope to avoid 2018 fate

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For a team who four months ago triumphed at the European Championship, who have lost only once in 39 consecutive matches and whose last outing yielded a victory against Belgium - ranked No 1 in the world - Italy can seem surprisingly pensive ahead of their Roma meeting on Friday with Switzerland.

For that, the blame lies with the ghosts of Novembers past. And a very recent past, when a World Cup qualifying campaign - much like this one - rested on two matches where the Azzurri were expected to come out on top. Four years since a failure to score a single goal over two legs against Sweden in a play-off meant Italy missed the Russia World Cup, the phantom of play-offs whispers in their ears once again.

The equation that faces Roberto Mancini’s renascent Italians on Friday and Monday is not quite so stark as in 2017, but they are locked on equal points with the Swiss at the top of European qualifying Group C, with a small goal-difference advantage.

A Swiss victory at the Stadio Olimpico would push the Italians into second place and send them down the lengthy-play-off route. Both teams’ remaining matches, on Monday, are against countries - Northern Ireland and Bulgaria - who have already been eliminated from contention for a top two finish.

“The experience of 2017 [when Sweden won 1-0 on aggregate and kept Italy out of a World Cup for the first time since the 1950s] does stay with us,” acknowledged defender Leo Bonucci, who expects to win his 113th cap. “But it’s there for the positive impact you gain from a negative experience.”

The proof of that is what Italy became after the rock-bottom of missing out on Russia. Head coach Gian Piero Ventura stood down, Mancini was appointed, and at the next major tournament Italy travelled to, the delayed Euro 2020, they had gained enough momentum to see off all-comers and maintain their composure through penalty shoot-outs in the semi-final, against Spain, and a final against England at Wembley to become champions.

Yes, said Bonucci, the memories of 2017 were there, but the ones to channel were the fresher souvenirs. “We must relive the emotions of our final against England, when were not anxious,” said Bonucci, who scored the equalising goal in the Euro 2020 final and converted the third Italian penalty towards a 3-2 win in the shoot-out.

Seven of the Italians who were involved in the fateful play-off against Sweden should play a part, although Mancini would prefer to have others from that cohort available. Giorgio Chiellini, the veteran captain, is injured, so the armband will pass to Bonucci. Also out from the spine of Mancini’s first-choice line-up are midfielder Marco Verratti and centre-forward Ciro Immobile.

“I am sorry for Chiellini and Immobile,” said Mancini, who knew of Verratti’s absence last month, “but at this time of the season, all national teams have to deal with injury problems.” Missing for Switzerland are Granit Xhaka - which, with Verratti also out, deprives the Rome crowd of one duel of guaranteed spikiness - and strikers Haris Seferovic and Breel Embolo.

Mancini emphasised the range of choices he has to replace Immobile, from Andrea Belotti, the usual like-for-like deputy, or a possible shift from their natural wide positions for Lorenzo Insigne or Federico Bernadeschi. It is a Mancini mantra, much used and always justified during the Euro 2020 campaign, that he has ‘23 first-teamers’, that Italy’s strength derives from strength in depth.

To that end, Mancini spread his net wide in building the recovery from the 2017 gloom, and found, once Italy had reached their top gears at the Euros, there was good cover in all positions. Leonard Spinazzola, arguably the player of the tournament until he sustained a ligament injury - from which is still recuperating - in the quarter-final, was replaced at left-back without momentum being derailed. Veratti had missed the opening two group games, a pair of 3-0 victories.

One of those was in Rome against the Swiss, a promising omen for this evening, although it was an unusually limp Switzerland who were bulldozed that night. Mancini anticipates a Swiss side more like the dogged, competitive version that recovered from the Italy defeat to squeeze into the last-16 and promptly knocked out France. “Every game against Switzerland is a challenge,” warned Mancini.

His advice to his players is to ignore the ghosts of play-offs past, to put behind them last month’s defeat to Spain in the semi-final of the Uefa Nations League, which ended the long unbeaten run. “Being anxious is no good. We need to go out to enjoy ourselves, relaxed but focussed.”

Updated: November 12, 2021, 3:31 AM