With a swipe of his right boot, Aleksandar Trajkovski sent Italy back in time: to November 2017, their lowest moment, a nightmare that a nation has spent four and a half years trying to escape. Back then, the head of the Italian Football Federation, Carlo Tavecchio, described missing out on a World Cup as an “apocalypse”. What word could describe a repeat of the end of all things?

Roberto Mancini was without answers in the wake of Italy’s 1-0 defeat by North Macedonia on Thursday. He took the blame on himself, but more than once reached for the same phrase as he fielded questions about the match and his future: “I wouldn’t know what to say.”

To fail like this was, on the surface, inexplicable. Italy, winners of the European Championship last summer, had held 65% of possession and taken 32 shots to North Macedonia’s four. There were no end of statistics to illustrate their superiority – from the corner count (16 to 0) through to expected goals (1.98 to 0.18).

And yet, there were few clearcut chances. Only when the North Macedonian goalkeeper, Stole Dimitrievski, passed straight to Domenico Berardi in the 29th minute, offering an open net, did a goal truly seem likely. The Italian rolled the ball tamely into Dimitrievski’s arms.

You could call it an unlucky night. There was nothing inevitable in the fact that Trajkovski should bury his shot so brilliantly in the 92nd minute, even if he was back at the Stadio Renzo Barbera, where he played for Palermo in Serie B three years before.

Equally, though, this match was no outlier.

Italy have sometimes seemed close to invincible under Mancini – setting an international football record as they went 37 matches undefeated, finally succumbing to Spain in the Nations League after playing for more than a half with 10 men. Yet they have not had a winning habit for some time.

Only two of their preceding nine matches ended with victory in 90 minutes. Penalties were required to overcome Spain and England in the final rounds of Euro 2020.

Profligacy got them into this playoff mess. The Azzurri took 27 shots to Bulgaria’s four last September in a match that finished 1-1. They drew twice with Switzerland after Jorginho missed penalties that could have won both matches. Either would have sufficed to top the group.

Whose fault is it when a team forgets how to score? It would be easy to make a scapegoat of the centre-forward Ciro Immobile, who has three times finished as Serie A’s capocannoniere – equalling the league’s record with 36 goals two seasons ago – yet has found the net a meagre 15 times in 55 Italy appearances. He drew a blank against North Macedonia just as in both legs of the playoff loss to Sweden in 2017.

Yet this was a collective failure. Lorenzo Insigne’s form for Napoli has dropped off noticeably since Euro 2020, critics suggesting that his mind is already with Toronto, the MLS club he will join in the summer. Federico Chiesa is injured. Berardi was the only member of the attack to arrive in full health and good form. Why did Mancini stick with a group of forwards, and indeed a formation, that was no longer working? A system that had perhaps not functioned quite the same since Leonardo Spinazzola was injured against Belgium last summer.

The more vexing question for Italian football is whether the alternatives were simply not good enough. As Italy searched for a goal in Sicily, Mancini sent on Giacomo Raspadori, a promising but raw talent who had scored once in seven appearances for the national team, and João Pedro, an uncapped 30-year-old with one goal in his past 13 games for Cagliari, 17th in Serie A.

Tavecchio’s successor at the Italian Football Federation, Gabriele Gravina, acknowledged that reality on Thursday night. “There are very few selectable players,” he said. “We must understand why so many young players don’t get used [by their club teams].”

It is one thing to identify the ailment, and another to find a cure. Plenty of words were expended after 2017 on the failings of Italian football’s youth development and a need to do things differently. Five years later, here we are.

That is not to say nothing has changed for the better. Mancini is not Gian Piero Ventura, who never knew success, to begin with and whose tenure ended with an open mutiny from his own substitute’s bench. The core of the team that won the Euros remains, and there are emerging talents to build on, from Alessandro Bastoni at centre-back to Sandro Tonali in midfield.

Gravina insisted he would like Mancini to stay, and plenty of Italians would support that. Everything good that happened in the past three and a half years has not been eliminated in one stroke.

Yet the inescapable reality is that Italy will miss a second consecutive World Cup: a catastrophe for a generation of players. Jorginho, third in the Ballon d’Or last year, has represented Italy since 2016 without having the possibility to be called up for a tournament that the Azzurri have won four times. Marco Verratti, Italy’s enfant terrible at Brazil 2014, will be 33 by 2026.

Little wonder that Mancini, whose contract runs to that summer, was struggling to come to terms with Thursday night. “The disappointment right now is too great to talk about the future,” he said. “Just as the victory last July was the most beautiful thing I’ve experienced at a professional level, this is the greatest disappointment of all.”


Note: This article is written by Nicky Bandini and has been published in the Guardian UK

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