Italy look to Verratti
Verratti shines above Azzurri's old men
(Tal Ben Haim 35)
(Graziano Pelle 14, Antonio Candreva 31-pen, Ciro Immobile 83)
Somewhere in west London, a glowering Italian could only wonder what might have been.
Antonio Conte turned old men into unlikely quarter-finalists at Euro 2016. He made the most of long-in-the-tooth veterans because he was short on artists.
He missed an unpredictable maverick. He missed Marco Verratti.
If Conte controlled the old Italy, then the new Italy belong to Verratti.
Against Israel yesterday morning (Singapore time), the 23-year-old taunted his opponents and teased his compatriots.
Verratti's commanding performance in the 3-1 win was both a blessing and a curse, a welcome expression of his exquisite talents and an unwanted reminder of triumphant Germans.
The loss of Verratti at Euro 2016 was almost certainly Germany's gain when the two teams met in the quarter-finals.
A groin injury robbed the distinguished craftsman of a chance to show off his wares and the Germans stole a victory.
On his international return, Israel bore the brunt of a young star's resurgence.
Verratti was pivotal in Italy's first goal, spraying a pass to the galloping Luca Antonelli out wide, whose cross was steered home by Graziano Pelle.
But the Paris Saint-Germain's authoritative presence allowed Giampiero Ventura's Azzurri to dominate proceedings, apart from a jittery spell after Giorgio Chiellini's foolish red card.
With Verratti at the head of a five-man midfield, Italy looked a lot like Conte's crop, with one subtle, sublime difference.
The squad limitations that handicapped Conte still leave his successor Ventura in a straitjacket, forcing him to stick with the three wise men from Juventus in central defence in front of teammate Gianluigi Buffon.
Age is clearly withering them. The trio defied the dates on their birth certificates at Euro 2016, but appeared lethargic in Israel.
Chiellini's red card was unlucky, but his uncharacteristically inept display had already earned an early exit.
From front to back, the faces were familiar to anyone who enjoyed Italy's antics in France.
Ventura isn't pandering to Conte apologists or imitating his predecessor. He just isn't spoilt for choice.
Apart from Verratti and Ginacomo Bonaventura alongside him, every other Italian starter was at least 29.
The front pair of Eder and have a combined age of 60.
At least Ciro Immobile, who leapt from the bench to score Italy's third goal has time on his side.
But the 26-year-old Lazio striker remains very much in the cherubic minority amid far too many grizzled elders with one foot in retirement.
In football terms, Italy's midfield resembles God's waiting room, which makes Verratti's return all the more convenient.
Ventura, unable to hide his relief at Verratti's successful return, said his playmaker had "proved himself".
Playing in an advanced role, the young midfielder's style fitted his nation's lost traditions.
The ghost of Andrea Pirlo looms large across the Azzurri, none more so than at Euro 2016.
Conte garnered praise for making silk purses from sows' ears, but his entrenched tactical template couldn't fully cover for the glaring absence of creative pedigree.
Pirlo held out for as long as he could, waiting in vain to pass the baton, but no one really arrived after the World Cup two years ago.
Euro 2016 was a bridge between Pirlo and Verratti.
The latter obviously isn't ready to climb the steps of the pantheon to join the bearded wonder. Nor does he have to be, not yet at least.
For now, the PSG midfielder offers a glimmer of optimism, an intelligent, pass-raking impresario who stands out beside the huffing and puffing retirees-in-waiting.
He's part Pirlo, part Daniele de Rossi and every inch an Italian architect.
Next month, the Italians host Spain in Turin without Chiellini, but with a patched-up defence and an uneven forward line.
The Spaniards are undergoing a post-Euro 2016 transformation. It's a makeover denied the Italians because of the paucity of options within Ventura's squad.
For the most part, it'll be the same line-up, formation and tactics against Spain, apart from Verratti.
His intelligence in possession should make him a first among equals when he takes on the Spanish brains trust in midfield.
The old Italians leftover from France will bring a lot of heart. But it's the young Italian from Paris who brings a little hope.