Ventura must be more adventurous
Italy coach must remove the shackles or the Azzurri will be out of World Cup for the first time in 60 years
The Italian football president speaks of an impending apocalypse.
Andrea Pirlo says the Azzurri are too cautious and a frenzied minority are actually calling for coach Gian Piero Ventura to be sacked before Italy face Sweden in their World Cup play-off second leg tomorrow (Singapore time).
Hysteria hasn't gripped the nation. A sobering dose of grim reality has taken hold.
Italy were awful in their 1-0 first-leg loss in Sweden and the coach was largely culpable. There's nothing ace about this particular Ventura, just an ingrained sense of caution that is blocking the road to Russia.
The 69-year-old coach must show more faith in the artistry at his disposal or Italy will miss the World Cup Finals for the first time since 1958.
In terms of individual talent, the Italians are undoubtedly superior but, collectively, it's a different story. Man for man, the Azzurri should prevail. Manager for manager, it's a Swede against a bit of a cabbage.
Ventura's stock has fallen so far and so rapidly that Italians have seriously wondered if the former Torino coach should've been sacked in the three-day period between Sweden games.
His faith in the classic quartet of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli was a testament to their durability and the Italians conceded only a single, deflected goal.
But Italy's game effectively ended at the halfway line. Their ponderous approach play confused the eye and confounded the soul.
The shirt said "Italy", but the tentative attacking and endless whining said something else entirely. Ventura's lack of adventure ensured that his muddled men completed just three dribbles in the entire match.
In tactical terms, Ventura borrowed the coat that Antonio Conte wore in Euro 2016 and cannot understand why it's not fitting him properly.
Against Sweden, he pinched Conte's 3-5-2 and expected to dominate with the extra man in midfield. But Conte's rigid organisation and discipline were missing, along with the order to charge forward at every opportunity.
SWEDE DEFENCE NOT TESTED
When Conte's automatons surged on the counter-attack at Euro 2016, they exploded. When Ventura's plodders found themselves in possession in Sweden, they came close to expiring.
Sweden's centre backs were Victor Lindelof, a fragile footballer who freezes in a Manchester United jersey, and 32-year-old Andreas Granqvist, a slowing veteran. But they were never tested. Not once.
Ciro Immobile, an unstoppable force right now, never ran at the old man and the jittery rookie. He never received the kind of service needed to get behind them.
A guy with 14 goals in 11 Serie A games rarely saw the ball against Sweden, a scathing indictment of a conservative coach who'll almost certainly be fired in the coming days - perhaps even if Italy reach the World Cup.
Ventura's eagerness to gather bodies behind the ball rather than unleash the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, a attacking midfielder currently in fine form at Napoli, remains a major source of irritation among Italy followers.
In a congested midfield, Marco Verratti had little room to operate. Even then, another peripheral display ridiculed the idea that he was heir to Pirlo's crown.
Verratti is suspended for the second leg. He may not be missed. No one ever said that about Pirlo.
If anything, Ventura's Italy look like a parody of the national team, acting out as many Italian cliches as they can in a 90-minute skit.
Chiellini got caught on camera rolling around on the floor and then peeking through his fingers to see if his Oscar-worthy antics had earned a free-kick.
END OF THE WORLD
And the Italians' pitiful complaints about Sweden's physical rough stuff were laughable, rather like listening to Lance Armstrong bemoaning the use of drug-taking in cycling.
The Azzurri are struggling with the taste of their own medicine. They need to toughen up, and quickly, or they'll be making history of the unwanted kind at the San Siro.
Ventura's job now depends on him trusting Insigne, Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian to probe the limited Swedes. Attack is the only option left.
Losing the play-off is unthinkable. But failing to qualify for the World Cup is inconceivable for the millions of Italians who weren't even born the last time that happened in 1958.
Carlo Tavecchio, the president of Italy's football federation, says it would be the end of the world if his country missed out on the World Cup.
And he's right.
Ventura must remove the tactical straightjacket or face apocalypse now.