Italy face a “do-or-die” World Cup showdown with Sweden but Gian Piero Ventura’s side has the experience to qualify for Russia 2018, according to Roberto Di Matteo.
The Azzurri are set to contest their first World Cup play-off since Di Matteo and Co eliminated Russia 2-1 on aggregate 20 years ago, with the first leg in Stockholm on Friday night.
The two nations will then meet again three days later at San Siro, with Ventura under huge pressure to extend Italy’s proud record of having appeared in every World Cup other than in 1958.
After an unconvincing qualifying campaign, however, doubts have been raised in some quarters about the Italy manager’s suitability for the role.
A 3-0 defeat to Spain in Group G was Italy’s first loss in a qualifier for a major championship since September 2006, a run stretching back more than 50 games.
It was not so much the result, though, but more Ventura’s decision to field a 4-2-4 system at the Santiago Bernabeu in September – and again in the next game against Israel – that caused most raised eyebrows.
Di Matteo, however, has defended his compatriot.
“It was not an easy group with Spain, they were always going to be the favourites,” Di Matteo said in an interview with Sky Sports. “They got a bit of criticism after that (losing to Spain).
“And then the last two games, there was not really much they could do. They more or less knew they were going to finish second and go into the play-offs.
“And so now it is the playoffs, two games. It would be a bit of a disaster if they do not qualify for the World Cup, but I remember we went into the play-offs in ’98. But I think they have the team to qualify.”
Ventura agrees with the former Italy international, saying it would be a “catastrophe” if the four-time world champions did not make it to next summer’s global showpiece.
Ventura was handed a contract extension until 2020 by the Italian FA, partly based on his willingness to promote youth to the senior team.
“If you want to achieve something, you need to be given the time to do it,” Ventura said.
“I’ve said for some time that there’s a lot of good young players within the national team setup,” added Ventura, who has handed as many as 12 debuts to players in little over a year, including AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.
But that will all count for nothing if Italy fail to get past a Sweden side who beat France at home and finished runners-up ahead of the Netherlands in Group A.
All of which makes Friday night’s first leg at the Friends Arena crucial to determining which country makes it to the World Cup, says Di Matteo.
“It is a tough one (draw),” Di Matteo said of being paired with a Sweden team Italy beat 1-0 in a group stage meeting at Euro 2016.
“I think out of the four teams, it is probably one of the tougher ones. It is two games and I do not think Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland would have been easy. Maybe a touch, but there is really not much in it.
“When you play the play-off games, it is do or die. If they can get a good result away from home, then you play the second game at home. It is important not to lose (the first leg).”
There has been some talk of Ventura returning to his 4-2-4 experiment for these two encounters, which would place great emphasis on Italy’s forward players.
The veteran coach can call upon Torino’s Andrea Belotti, Ciro Immobile of Lazio, Southampton’s Manolo Gabbiadini, Eder Citadin Martins from Inter Milan and Valencia’s Simone Zaza.
‘The Rooster’, as Belotti is known, was largely an unheralded name before last season, only for 28 goals in just 38 matches in all competitions to lead to a €100m buyout clause being inserted in his deal in Turin.
After missing October’s qualifiers with Macedonia and Albania, however, Belotti is expected to lead the line with Immobile after recovering from injury, with Ventura looking to the duo to fire them to Russia.
“[Lorenzo] Insinge is playing very well, Immobile, the striker, is the top scorer in Italy right now with 14 goals. Simone Zaza is playing very well at Valencia, [Marco] Verratti is going well and the back three and the goalkeeper are all hugely experienced,” says Di Matteo.
Even Leonardo Bonucci’s defensive struggles this season since joining Milan from Juventus for £37.45m in July should not cause Italy too much cause for concern, thinks Di Matteo, given the centre back will again be reunited with former club-mates Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon in the Azzurri back line.
“AC Milan is struggling a little bit, but Bonucci is used to playing with Chiellini, Barzagli and Buffon, and they have played together for seven years, so he will be fine,” Di Matteo said.
“They have a very good understanding and know each other so well, so I think it will be a good setup if they can all play.”
One player’s form Ventura need not worry about against the Swedes is that of captain Buffon, who will make his 174th and 175th appearances for his country in these two clashes.
The 39-year-old has been forced to defend his manager, telling Corriere dello Sport: “Recently, the most popular sport is to attack Ventura and I don’t find that appropriate.”
However, the goalkeeper is determined to feature in what would be a record-breaking sixth World Cup next summer.
“I have to bring Italy to the World Cup and I’ll do everything I can to make it happen,” he said.
“I’d like to play a sixth World Cup. It would be a record to go down in history. The Mexican goalkeeper Tota Carbajal and Lothar Matthaus of Germany took part in five.”
It is players with big-game mentalities like Buffon, though, that may very well hand Italy the edge in these two play-off contests, believes Di Matteo.
“It is football, anything can happen,” he said. “In Italy, we are all thinking positive right now and there is no reason to think we won’t qualify.
“Normally in the big games they know how to play in those big games and how to approach them and everything. And normally the players turn up for these big games when it matters.”
Ventura also has the requisite experience to help his country to Russia 2018 having coached teams at every level in Italy in his 41 years as a manager.
The Italy boss is adamant his side “have taken another small step forward” under him by making it into the play-offs, but now they need to finish the job.
Otherwise, to quote Gabriele Oriali, the Azzurri team manager: “Imagine a World Cup without Italy.”