15th November 2017.
Italy’s 1-0 aggregate loss to Sweden in their World Cup qualification play-off has sparked a maelstrom of emotion within the Italian football community, with an outpouring of sadness, disappointment and anger greeting the final whistle at the end of the goalless second leg at the San Siro.
The defeat means the Azzurri fail to qualify for a World Cup finals for the first time in 60 years, denying legendary goalkeeper and 2006 World Cup winner Gianluigi Buffon the dream career bookend of bowing out at next summer’s tournament in Russia, while fellow veterans Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini have also confirmed their subsequent international retirements.
Many observers are calling for a root-and-branch review of the Italian football system, feeling that systemic issues are at the heart of Italy’s recent failures, and deeming the current pool of Azzurri players inferior to past generations.
But, in truth, as much as anything, Italy’s qualification flop was a result of poor selection and coaching from Gian Piero Ventura, who was unable to find a tactical system that maximised the gifts of Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne, his two most talented players, and ignored Brazil-born Italian international playmaker Jorginho for the bulk of the qualifying campaign.
An astute coaching appointment and a plan to build around Verratti and Insigne could see the Azzurri back on track, while there is a crop of gifted young players deserving of a more prominent role with the national team, waiting in the wings to step up in the place of the recent retirees.
The natural heir to namesake Buffon, Milan goalkeeper Donnarumma is already among the world’s best in his position despite still being only 18 years old.
The Rossoneri custodian has been a regular at senior club level since he was 16, and is destined for greatness if he continues along his current career trajectory.
At 6ft 5ins and with sound handling, Donnarumma commands his area with real presence, an invaluable asset for a goalkeeper, while the towering teenager is blessed with godly reflexes that allow him to pull off breath-taking saves with stunning regularity.
Donnarumma doesn’t turn 19 until February, yet he already has 91 first-team appearances under his belt for Milan and four caps for Italy. After waving goodbye to an all-time goalkeeping great in Buffon, Italy are fortunate to have such a talent to take the great man’s gloves.
Since joining Juventus in 2013, Rugani has had to be patient. The Bianconeri’s ‘BBC’ backline of Leonardo Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini has formed the foundation of the club’s Serie A dominance over the last half-decade, and as such any central defender looking to break into the starting line-up at the Allianz Stadium has come up short.
That’s why, upon joining Juve, Rugani was initially loaned straight back to Empoli, where he could benefit from one further year of unobstructed first-team football before moving to Turin.
However, now 23, the 6ft 3ins centre-back, who has long been considered the future of the Italian defence, is only just beginning to make headway into the Juventus side on a regular basis following Bonucci’s shock summer departure for Milan.
Strong in the air, positionally astute and excellent with the ball at his feet, Rugani is the complete package, and now that he is getting a healthy amount of game time at Juventus, he is ready to step up and assume a similar role with the Azzurri.
Vying with Rugani for the title of Italy’s most promising central defender is Milan’s Romagnoli. Signed from Roma for €25 million in 2015, the 22-year-old has 70 Serie A appearances to his name – 29 more than Rugani at this stage of their respective careers.
Although the Juventus man may have the edge in terms of natural talent, the fact that Romagnoli has been playing regularly at a high level over the last four seasons has seen the Milan man catch up developmentally to the point where they are now almost on level footing regarding their future international prospects.
Fast, technically gifted and tenacious, Romagnoli has the makings of a top-class centre-back. And Milan’s acquisition of Bonucci means he has the perfect role model alongside him in Vincenzo Montella’s defence.
Signed as part of the Milan revolution this summer which saw the seven-time European champions splash around €200 million following a takeover by Chinese investors, Conti adds the kind of quality in the full-back areas that has been lacking at the San Siro for some time.
The athletic 23-year-old was hugely impressive with high-flying Atalanta last season, helping La Dea rise to fifth in Serie A and convincing Milan to part with €24 million, plus Matteo Pessina moving in the other direction, to snap up the fast-improving right-back.
A regular with the under-21s, Conti made his senior international debut in a 1-0 World Cup qualification win over Israel. However, an ACL injury in September has curtailed his progress this season, ruling him out until 2018.
Just days after his 19th birthday, Pellegrini left Roma, the club he’d joined as a nine-year-old, to pursue first-team opportunities with Sassuolo, departing the Stadio Olimpico in a €1.25 million deal.
In two seasons with the Neroverdi, the box-to-box midfielder blossomed into one of the hottest prospects in Serie A, showcasing a fine range of passing, intelligent movement and a combative edge.
When Sassuolo boss Eusebio Di Francesco took over from Luciano Spalletti at Roma this summer, he was soon reunited with the midfielder he helped shape, as the Giallorossi
wisely exercised their €10 million buy-back option on Pellegrini, returning the youngster to the capital where he is set to star for years to come.
Pellegrini made his senior Azzurri debut in May’s 8-0 demolition of San Marino, before then taking part in the European Under-21 Championship, impressing greatly during the tournament in Poland and producing a memorable bicycle-kick goal against Denmark.
With his well-rounded skill set and sky-high potential, Pellegrini should become a regular feature of Italy’s midfield going forward, alongside Verratti and Jorginho.