Italy's Fab Four of Buffon, Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini deserve World Cup finale
Buffon and his bad-boy trio must be at next year's Russian showpiece
There are few certainties in life beyond the fact that the Italians always make the World Cup Finals.
Gianluigi Buffon will be between the posts, his slicked back hair and chiselled jawline suggesting he's just popped over from the catwalk.
The country that created "catenaccio" will send out three ageing centre backs who smile about as often as they lose strikers in the box.
And Daniele de Rossi will live up to every tattooed, bearded biker stereotype by picking a fight with someone.
That's Italy. That's entertainment. That's why the World Cup wouldn't be the same without them.
But Russia 2018 will be without them if the Italians cannot navigate a way past Sweden in a two-legged play-off, the first of which will be in Stockholm tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
The last time the Italians failed to qualify for a World Cup was in 1958. Since then, their back four has always exuded stability and consistency.
But in recent times, Italy's classic quartet evolved. Like a Singapore apartment, they became a kind of "three plus one".
Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Buffon, the plus one, defined the Italian way.
Always unflappable, often unbeatable and occasionally downright impregnable, the fab four were rarely off key.
At recent tournaments, the Italians had to stitch together a patchwork quilt of unreliable mavericks (Mario Balotelli) and journeymen (Graziano Pelle) up front, but the back four never came apart.
They have earned a fitting finale in Russia rather than an ignominious end in a forgettable play-off.
Buffon and Barzagli were part of the World Cup-winning squad of 2006, along with de Rossi, so they could arguably have no complaints if their Azzurri odyssey ends soon.
But they deserve better. So does the World Cup.
Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci elevated the art of defending in an era of galloping wing-backs. In central defence, their communication appeared almost telepathic, as if borrowed from a warped episode of Stranger Things.
Their tackling was certainly monstrous, but somehow classy.
When they dispossessed a striker, it was like being mugged not with a knife but with a bunch of flowers. There was a kind of elegance to the transaction.
Bonucci remains the odd man out, both in terms of age and location. At 30, he still has another World Cup campaign to go. The Milan man is also the only Italian of the four not to play for Juventus.
END OF THE ROAD
For Buffon, 39, Barzagli, 36, and Chiellini, 33, there's a clear sense that the end of the road is near.
Buffon has already acknowledged that his international career will be settled one way or another in the next few days and he'll retire completely at the end of the season if Juve don't win the Champions League.
Those personal targets hint at the underlying frustrations of a fine footballer who's suffered one crushing defeat too many in recent seasons.
Losing three Champions League finals still hurts.
Being stripped of a couple of Serie A titles, thanks to the 2006 "Calciopoli" refereeing scandal, still rankles.
Failing to build on Italy's World Cup triumph in 2006 and enduring too many early-tournament exits still irritates.
Despite chalking up a record 173 appearances for Italy, Buffon still feels there is unfinished business.
His international resume is blotted with too many failures of late. To avoid another against Sweden, his band of defensive brothers need to be in-sync.
The Azzurri are a squad in transition. In truth, the Italians feel like they've been in transition since 2006, but there's a definite line now between past and future.
At least six key players are on the wrong side of 30 and unlikely to have a role in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
Marco Verratti most certainly will, but his creative omnipotence is matched only by his omnipresent fragility. Too many injuries have contributed to a stop-start international career.
The Italians can at least call upon an in-form centre forward, which is seldom the case ahead of major tournaments.
At Lazio, Ciro Immobile has knocked in 14 goals in 11 Serie A games and must fancy his chances against a workmanlike Swedish defence.
But coach Gian Piero Ventura must acknowledge that his greatest assets also betray his squad's longstanding weaknesses.
Italy is still a country for old men. After all these years, the Azzurri's World Cup hopes still rest with Buffon, Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci.
Strikers can't live with them. And the Italians certainly can't live without them.