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World Cup: From zeros to heroes to zeros - what next for Italy?

When Italy won the European Championships at a disconsolate Wembley in July, a new golden era looked to be on the horizon for the Azzurri - nine months later the mood could not be more different.

(This article was originally published on 29.03.2022)

Many fans in Italy thought the nadir for them was failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after a play-off defeat to Sweden - wholesale changes would be needed to ensure they could continue to be competitive on the international stage.

However, they have suffered the same fate again, this time after being shocked 1-0 at home to North Macedonia, meaning for the second successive World Cup the Italians will not be present.

A chance for slight redemption will come in the Nations League next year, with Italy 8/1 to claim the title, while Germany can be backed at 10/1 and Spain are available at 6/1.

Complacency strikes Azzurri?

It is genuinely hard to pinpoint exactly how Italy have fallen so far from grace in such a short space of time - few people could deny they were the best team at the Euros last summer.

They played with a combination of attacking swagger and defensive resilience - the exciting likes of Marco Verratti and Federico Chiesa were supplemented by Giorgio Chiellini and Jorghinho.

Of course, they had to rely on some luck during the tournament and both the semi-final and final wins were secured via penalty shootouts, but the signs looked ominous from their opening group game win against Turkey.

Since the Euro final however, Italy have slipped into a habit of failing to punish teams - the Azzurri have won only two of eight matches since the Euros final and one of them was a 5-0 thrashing of Lithuania in their World Cup qualifying group stage.

Too many draws saw them lose out to Switzerland and perhaps it could be argued the dreaded play-offs were approached with a sense of complacency, particularly as they were drawn to face the weakest team left.

It has been another embarrassing tale of World Cup woe for a team whose last knockout match in the tournament was, incredibly, the 2006 World Cup final.

Mancini hoping to stay at helm

Obviously, the first port of call when a team has underachieved is to question the authority of the manager.

In fairness to Roberto Mancini, he has built up a lot of credit in the bank because of the Euros triumph and that means he is likely to be given more leeway than others.

"We need to start again," said Mancini. "I talked to the president, we're in agreement on everything. We'll have time to discuss what we need to improve.

"I'm still young and I wanted to win a European Championship and a World Cup, we'll have to wait for the second a little bit. I like this work and I know that with the players we can organise something important."

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Ageing stars set to be replaced

With Italy now not assured of any tournament football for at least another two years, the time may be right to focus on the future and cast aside some of their experienced stars.

The likes of Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Jorignho are well into their 30s now and the extra rigours of international football could be having an effect.

Italy have many splendid prospects at good ages coming through, such as Alessandro Bastoni and Manuel Locatelli and the focus should be now on moulding them into leaders rather than relying on the old guard.

Getting rampaging left-back Leonardo Spinazzola back fit and firing after his Achilles injury will also be a priority as will finding a regular goalscoring centre-forward.

Goalscoring a major issue

Ciro Immobile has always shone at club level, but failed to reproduce that at international level. Ditto Andrea Belotti, so scoring more goals will be key to re-emerging as an international superpower.

For now though, the Azzurri will be forced to spend another tournament casting envious eyes across at the 32 teams involved.

Of course Italy have no divine right to be at the World Cup finals, but they realistically should be there.

A big task lies ahead in order to make sure the embarrassment of failing to qualify does not happen for a third successive time.

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