Because less players equal more space to pass and move

What's Next for Italy and Gigi?

The FIFA World Cup is the pinnacle of world football, so it would surely seem unthinkable that one of only eight nations to have won the competition would fail to qualify for Russia 2018.

Well, this is exactly the fate that befell the Azzurri following a slender 1-0 aggregate defeat to a Zlatan-less Sweden in November's World Cup qualifiers. And, just as the 2-1 defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 brought the curtain down on England’s Lampard, Gerrard and eventually Wayne Rooneys’ international future, this result signalled the end of an era in international football for a whole host of Italy’s ageing stars.

Juventus trio Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, along with AS Roma enforcer Daniele De Rossi, all announced their retirement from international football following their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The retirement of De Rossi, Barzagli and Buffon, in particular, will be a substantial loss to the Azzurri as all three were instrumental in providing the spine of the squad that won the World Cup back in their 2006 triumph over Zidane’s France. Chiellini missed out on the 2006 tournament through injury but returned to the squad to help Italy finish as runners-up to Spain at the 2012 European Championship.

The situation will leave a sour taste in the mouth for all involved, however, it has only hastened the inevitable. Chiellini 33, Barzagli, 36 and De Rossi, 34 were unlikely to extend their international careers much beyond the end of Italy’s involvement in the World Cup tournament – that's not even to mention Buffon, who turns 40 in January and has already announced his intention to retire at the end of the current season.

Time waits for no man, not even the great Gianluigi Buffon, and as the curtain closes on a career spanning nearly three decades, is there is still one last hurrah for the gentle Italian?

One trophy that has thus far eluded him, the UEFA Champions League, is the most sought-after trophy in club football; only the best of the best will get their hands on the prestigious cup. Legends such as Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Patrick Vieira Michael Ballack, Fabio Cannavaro, Francesco Totti, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and even Ronaldo were unable to secure this elusive prize, so Buffon is in good company. However, having come so tantalisingly close in both 2015 and 2017, Buffon will surely want to cancel his membership to this prestigious club before the end of the season.

Italy’s failure to qualify has denied Buffon the chance to play at his sixth World Cup and will no doubt taint even a Champions League winner's medal should he finally get his hands on one. Juventus must be slightly disappointed having drawn a strong Tottenham side who managed to best last year’s champions Real Madrid 3-1 at Wembley and earnt a respectable draw at the Bernabéu. Since their European exploits, Spurs have faltered slightly losing 2-0 to North London rivals Arsenal, 2-1 to 2016 Premier League Champions Leicester City and limping to 1-1 draws against West Brom and Watford. The viewing figures have certainly improved following their 3-0 victory over Apoel Nicosia and their 5-1 mauling of Stoke at the weekend which will have gone some way to silencing the doubters, never the less last season’s runners-up are currently languishing in sixth place, level on points with Burnley.

Juventus, by contrast, are flying high in Serie A, two points off of leaders Inter Milan, yet they’re somewhat off their usual best. The fact that the top four are only separated by five points adds some much-needed competition to the Italian top flight. Juventus have won the competition 33 times since its formation in 1898 and are currently on a six-season winning streak, seemingly unrivalled by those around them. So dominant are they that they recently went more than two years from August 2015 to October 2017 without losing at the Allianz Stadium until Lazio forward Ciro Immobile struck twice to give Lazio a 2-1 victory over The Old Lady.

This season's resurgence of Inter Milan might come as some concern to Buffon and co. as they are thus far unbeaten in the league this season and hold the league's joint-best defensive along with second-placed Napoli and fourth-placed Roma. If the top four clubs can keep up this impressive run of form, we could be looking at the most exciting Serie A season in recent memory. Having to compete so ferociously on the domestic front this season will do Buffon no favours in ending his Champions League hoodoo.

This issue within Italy’s squad arguably can be traced back to the omission and subsequent retirement of Andrea Pirlo; the man was a magician with the ball at his feet. Some of the best players are known for their energetic combative performances but very few can play the game the way Pirlo mastered it. Only two other players spring to mind as players who could play at the top level without actually running: Matt Le Tissier and Dimitar Berbatov, and neither of these can hold a candle to the mercurial Italian.

His performance against England in 2012 is undoubtedly one of the finest showings from a man in an Italian shirt, so dominant was he during the Euro 2012 quarterfinal that he made 131 passes with a success rate of 87%. Compare this to England’s two central midfielders Steven Gerrard and Scott Parker, who combined only managed a meagre 67 passes with a success rate of only 80%. If this wasn’t enough, the classy Italian rounded off his man of the match performance with an audacious Panenka penalty, making Joe Hart look like a toddler in full-sized nets, although Hart isn’t faring much better these days.

How do you replace a player like this? It would be comparable to taking Ronaldo out of Portugal or Messi out of Argentina, only more noticeable. Italy’s current midfield is now usually marshalled by PSG’s undoubtedly talented Marco Veratti and the surrounding cast of Inter Milan’s Antonio Candreva, Napoli’s Jorginho and Lazio’s Marco Parolo. The latter three were entrusted with limping to a 0-0 draw in Italy’s make or break World Cup Play-Off with Sweden, clearly a task they were not up to.

Italy’s failure to qualify could, in fact, be seen as a mercy in some ways. No disrespect to Sweden, but they are hardly world beaters and are unlikely to cause many teams too many problems at next summer’s tournament. Italy now have two years to regroup and assemble a squad capable of competing at Euro 2020.

Back in 2014, England proved that dominance in a weak qualifying group counts for nothing as they were humiliated on the world stage by Uruguay, Costa Rica and Italy themselves collecting only a solitary point from a 0-0 draw in a meaningless game from the already-qualified Costa Ricans. Although the Italians didn’t fare much better than the English, they could at least take some pride from their comfortable victory over England.

Buffon’s absence from the international stage may not be as drastic as many fear. The highly rated namesake Gianluigi Donnarumma looks like a perfect replacement having come of age in recent seasons. The 6’4, 18-year-old stopper looked destined to leave Milan in the summer after a peculiar transfer saga in which it was rumoured that the Milan hierarchy threatened to bench the keeper for the entirety of the season if he failed to sign a new contract.

It seems as though with every good player the rumour mill has started up again and PSG are reportedly in talks with Mino Raiola, Donnarumma about a possible switch to the Parc des Princes in 2018. Even Jimmy Carr’s accountant would struggle to balance the books and find the funds for a move that in recent financial times would be expected to be in excess of €100 million, having already spent €222 million plus this season for Neymar and Kylian Mbappe’s ‘option to buy’ at €190 million. If rumours are to be believed, however, Donnarumma’s new contract only has a measly €70 million release clause within it, boosting PSG’s chances dramatically.

With Milan having spent €170 million in the summer themselves, they may not be in a financial position to rebuff PSG’s advances, regardless of Donnarumma’s contract situation. PSG would not only be capable to offer a contract that Milan would struggle to compete with, but the prospect of playing in Paris and challenging for both the domestic and European titles may prove too alluring. Either way, Donnarumma needs to be playing regularly to fill the gaping hole now between the Auzzi’s sticks.