One man to blame for Italian disaster
IT'S been a while since Italy have gone to a major tournament as one of the favourites.
Even World Cup glory in 2006, with a team full of players subsequently considered legendary, was far from expected.
But getting there has never been an issue. Until now.
The 1-0 aggregate playoff defeat to Sweden means there will be no Fratelli d'Italia being passionately sung at a World Cup for the first time since 1958.
Italy have stopped producing top quality defenders - the position which made them one of the top footballing powerhouses - and that is a problem.
They are in the midst of a major identity crisis, and Giorgio Chiellini insists the fault lies with world football's obsession to copy Pep Guardiola's style.
The Azzurri have been famous for their Catenaccio system, but the pressures of modern football dictate top teams cannot be fashionable without an attacking style of play.
Juventus defender Chiellini insists Italy has been caught out by the introduction of the Tika-Taka era of football, which has stopped them producing elite defenders.
Speaking ahead of the first leg against Sweden, he explained: "Guardiola-ism has ruined Italian defenders a bit - now defenders know how to set the tone of play and they can spread the ball, but they don't know how to mark.
"It's a great pity because we're losing our DNA a bit and some of those characteristics which had made us excel in the world."
Whether the Manchester City boss's much-coveted style of football is to blame or not, Italy are certainly suffering.
In the past, it was not just a strong defence that provided the pillars of success, but experience.
And not just in terms of age, but in knowledge of winning major trophies.
It was very rare for an Italian player to establish himself in the first team until he was in his mid-20s, with intelligence and understanding more highly regarded than pace or stamina.
However, Italy's current attack is, certainly in relative terms, young, and this is a new experience for the Azzurri.
Andrea Belotti and Federico Bernardeschi are two of the hottest prospects in Europe at just 23.
But manager Gian Piero Ventura opted not to risk them for the must-win second-leg and instead Ciro Immobile, 27, started.
The veteran coach is cautious and old school, and has had a selection of modern-day footballers at his disposal he simply doesn't understand how to best use.
It's very rare that Italy produces an unpredictable genius, capable of unlocking defences with a simple pass or a dribble or a moment of magic, but who can remain uninvolved for large parts of the match.
Roberto Baggio was a famous example - and no one seemed capable of getting the best out of him, despite being arguably the country's most gifted footballer of all-time.
And, while not on the same level technically, Lorenzo Insigne is another.
The Napoli man, 26, has been in scintillating form for his club but has struggled to replicate that in an Italy shirt.
Still, in a match where only a win would do and Sweden were unlikely to come out and attack, starting him on the left wing ahead of Matteo Darmian - a right-back - was surely a risk worth taking.
He may have struggled at international level, but while the Manchester United man works hard, Insigne has the ability to make things happen and Italy needed to score.
These talents have to be nurtured. Used correctly, and you have a world-beater on your hands.
The fact that Italy finished the match with three centre-backs speaks volumes of Ventura's lack of ambition.
And Ventura's lack of bravery in his team selection became even more apparent when he ordered defensive-midfielder Daniele De Rossi to warm up ahead of Insigne.
He will surely go, with Carlo Ancelotti among those tipped to replace him, but he cannot be the only one to step down.
The entire Italian FA needs a revamp and ex-players, such as Paolo Maldini, could come in as advisers.
Whether it's in cinema, art or football, Italy is a nation which, historically, has reacted well to setbacks.
The famed Catenaccio, which sees two banks of four in midfield and defence, was adopted in the 1950s following Torino's tragic plane crash in 1949, which claimed the lives of several attacking players.
With a wealth of talented attacking players, and playmakers such as Jorginho and Marco Verratti - both of whom are 25 - there is real hope Italy can regroup and embrace the new wave of modern, attacking football.
Furthermore, while Ventura has continued to rely on a back three of Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, whose combined age is 99, there are talented replacements available.
At 22, Juventus' Daniele Rugani has been tipped for a bright future - as have Mattia Caldara and Alessio Romagnoli.
There is no doubt the goalkeeping position is in good hands with Gianluigi Donnarumma capable of claiming the role for the next two decades.
Yes, this is a setback. A major setback.
But a "typical" Italian reaction could yet make this a blessing in disguise.
They have not got past the group stage of a World Cup since winning it in 2006 - and the core of their team has remained largely the same in that time.
Perhaps it's time for change, not just on the dugout and at boardroom level, but on the pitch as well.
It's a shame we won't get to see the colourful Azzurri in Russia. But this is a wake-up call.
And Italy's long-term future will be decided by what happens in the immediate aftermath.