A new look Italy will take the stage at the Stadio Grande Torino on Friday night. In a decision perhaps inspired by Juventus' redesign of their crest, the Italian Football Federation clearly thought there is no time like the present for a revamp of their own and unveiled the national team's new badge at an event held at Rome's MAXXI museum on Monday night.
By modernising the logo, the Italian Football Federation hope to project an image of its own modernity, although that's a tough sell given president Carlo Tavecchio's views on a few issues. For what it's worth, Tavecchio likes how the new crest "frees" the stars commemorating Italy's four World Cup wins while also making space for another one, which is a little presumptuous after the Azzurri's comprehensive defeat in Madrid last month.
— Italy (@azzurri) October 2, 2017
Italy's final qualifiers against Macedonia and Albania are being framed as preparation for the national team's first World Cup playoff in 20 years. The one and only time Italy failed to make the World Cup was in 1958 and the idea of not being in Russia next summer is understandably cause of concern. Listen to the language being used on the subject. Giovanni Malago, the head of Italy's Olympic committee, believes missing out would be a "tragedy." Giampiero Ventura, the coach, says it would be a "catastrophe." Tavecchio thinks it would be the end of the world as we know it. "An apocalypse."
Melodrama is never far from the surface in Italian football and this international fortnight is no different. Italy's new look is not limited to the badge -- Bologna's Simone Verdi looks set to become the 12th player to make their debut under Ventura in little over a year. The system will also be different from the one we saw against Spain and Israel, which will come as a relief to some. Playing 4-2-4 at the Bernabeu always felt like a disaster waiting to happen and when Italy laboured against inferior opposition in Reggio Emilia a couple of days later, you left the Mapei Stadium with deeper convictions this configuration simply does not suit the players. Worst of all, it holds back a major difference maker like Lorenzo Insigne.
Ventura doesn't see it that way though, saying it is only a matter of "interpretation" and there are fears the 4-2-4 might re-appear when the playoffs come around in November. For now Italy plan to line up in a 3-4-3, which, as we've alluded to, unfortunately isn't on account of Ventura seeing the light. On the contrary, the switch is more a case of the manager's hand being forced.
An injury crisis has rocked the Italy camp in the days leading up to the Macedonia and Albania games. Marco Verratti and Daniele De Rossi, the first choice central midfield, are hurt and at home. Their dorms have been filled at Coverciano by some additional fresh faces with Cagliari starlet Niccolo Barella and the half Canadian Bryan Cristante joining up with the senior squad for the first time, fair reward for the excellent starts they have made to the season.
De Rossi's Roma teammate and Ventura's first "go-to" sub in midfield Lorenzo Pellegrini has also had to pull out with a calf problem. His place has been taken by the out-of-form Roberto Gagliardini, which raised a few eyebrows, particularly down in Naples where fans are wondering what exactly Jorginho needs to do in order get Ventura's attention. With Verratti nursing another muscle strain, the Brazilian dual national is the closest Italy have got to a midfield string-puller who can help them control a game.
Jorginho's omission under Ventura was only the second, maybe the third most talked about. The biggest injury blow Italy suffered at the weekend was to Andrea Belotti. Stretchered off with his head in his hands after twisting his knee in a 2-2 draw with Verona on Sunday, there were fears the Torino striker had torn his anterior cruciate ligament. It was a relief, then, to learn he will miss just four-to-six weeks with a tear to his collateral ligament. A relief to Belotti and Torino coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, but not to Ventura who will probably have to plan for the playoffs without the Rooster.
With the exception of Belotti's strike partner, the on-fire Ciro Immobile, the other forwards in the squad do not inspire great confidence. Eder isn't a starter at Inter and Manolo Gabbiadini has scored just the once for a goal-shy Southampton side. The Belotti-shaped hole in the squad is being filled, for now, by another debutant, Chievo's Roberto Inglese which has been the focus of big debate at Italy camp this week.
Inglese is a great story, if only because his name translates as Bobby English. It wasn't long ago he was playing in the third division and an Italy call-up is the latest chapter in a fairytale, which will see him join Napoli next season. The trouble is Inglese has scored only two league goals this season which pales in comparison with the numbers put up by Mario Balotelli and Simone Zaza this season. Balotelli has scored seven goals in nine games for Nice. Zaza, meanwhile, is in a rich vein of form with six in his last seven appearances for Valencia.
Gabbiadini's inclusion -- as well as Verratti's in the past -- indicates Ventura's horizons extend beyond Italy's borders. This isn't the '90s anymore when players who plied their trade abroad were considered out of sight and out of mind. Why overlook strikers of their calibre then? Particularly when Zaza and Immobile's partnership initially showed great promise at the start of Antonio Conte's two-year spell in charge of Italy. OK, Balotelli never saw a minute of game-time under Conte, but the Chelsea manager did at least call Super Mario up with a view to giving him the benefit of the doubt. Could Ventura not have done the same?
After all, Balotelli has scored 24 goals in 37 games for Nice. Of course you still get the odd fit of pique, as you do with Zaza. Nice manager Lucien Favre publicly criticised Balotelli for his performance in the Champions League playoffs against Napoli, saying: "When you have one or two who do nothing on the pitch, it is impossible to beat anyone."
Zaza also had a falling out with Marcelino after he was left out of the starting XI for the derby with Levante, walking straight down the tunnel at full-time, instead of going over to Valencia's fans, after coming on as a late sub. Marcelino grabbed him and made Zaza join his teammates at the away end. Ventura can point to those incidents in justification of his decision. Unfortunately for him, though, neither have stopped scoring since.
This group of players, led by a Juventus core, would have no problem welcoming Zaza back in from the cold. Anyone can miss a penalty, even if his dancing run-up made poor Zaza a figure of fun at Euro 2016 and is now what most people associate him with. In the three years since his last appearance for Italy, Balotelli's chances of a being a regular part of the set-up again has always been presented as a case of needing to win back the trust he lost on that day in Natal when he burned his bridges with the old guard, not to mention the manager who indulged him most, Cesare Prandelli.
Ventura refuses to rule out a recall at some stage. But here's a thought: the 69-year-old's contract was extended last month on the grounds he is bringing a new generation through in double-quick time. The number of players to receive their first ever opportunity at senior international level is in double figures and it's great to see Gianluigi Donnarumma and the Atalanta boys emerge. But isn't it also time Ventura started giving the likes of Zaza and Balotelli second chances too?
If not, maybe think twice about calling the selection process meritocratic.