Manchester United
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Ventura's missteps, shallow player pool responsible for Italy's World Cup woe

MILAN, Italy -- Perhaps this had been coming for Italy. Successive group-stage exits at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and a head coach in charge whose greatest achievement in a 41-year career was promotion from Serie C in 1996 -- the warning signs were certainly there.

But for a World Cup to take place without Italy, the four-time world champions and two-time runners-up, still feels like a jolt; it's one of those realities that will take weeks, months, to sink in.

Netherlands missing out on Russia 2018 was a blow for football's romantics, then came the United States failing to punch their weight in CONCACAF, with Bruce Arena's team contriving to finish fifth in what is usually a two-horse race.

And Chile, the back-to-back South American champions, were the next to miss the boat. African champs Cameroon, and their predecessors, Ivory Coast, also stumbled at the final hurdle this week.

Australia, the champions of Asia, might be next, with Oceania's No. 1, New Zealand, another nation up against it in terms of their qualification hopes.

But when it comes to a superpowers staying at home, none of the above are in the same league as Italy, and the recriminations and inquests will go on in Rome, Milan and Turin long after the World Cup has finished, in order to ensure that the humiliation of failing to qualify never happens again.

Leg 2Aggregate: 0 - 1
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It has been 60 years since a World Cup took place without the Azzurri, but over two playoff games against Sweden, they failed to score a single goal.

Yes, there will be many in Italy who will vent their frustrations at being placed in the same qualification group as Spain, while the likes of Switzerland, Belgium and England were handed much more favourable routes to Russia. But that is the luck of the draw, and Italy were ultimately masters of their own downfall.

The president of the Italian federation claimed it would be an "apocalypse" if Italy failed to qualify, but now that it has happened, perhaps the selection of Gian Piero Ventura as Antonio Conte's successor following Euro 2016 was a catalyst for the calamity.

For a nation that has produced so many world-class coaches, Ventura's appointment was a bizarre decision. Aged 67 at the time, Ventura landed the job after a five-year spell in charge of Torino, during which he had stabilised the club and taken them into Europe.

But Ventura had won no major honours and appeared to be a "safe pair of hands" appointment, due to the likes of Carlo Ancelotti and Claudio Ranieri being unavailable. Roberto Mancini, who wanted the job, was overlooked.

Yet whatever the justification for handing Ventura the job, it has been a disastrous appointment, with the coach alienating supporters and players alike with his selections and tactics.

In this game against Sweden, despite chasing a 1-0 deficit from the first leg in Stockholm and with Marco Verratti suspended, Ventura started with Andrea Belotti, Stephan El Shaarawy and Lorenzo Insigne on the bench.

Losing to Sweden in their qualifying playoff, Italy will miss the World Cup for the first time since 1958.

Insigne, in such impressive form this season for Serie A leaders Napoli, remained on the bench as the clock ticked down to footballing disaster, but Belotti and El Shaarawy were at least handed a chance late in the game to make a difference. It was too little, too late, however, and Italy ultimately went out because the coach failed to spot the danger signs and acted too slowly when he did.

There also will be a view that Ventura inherited Italy's weakest group of players for decades, one that had been dragged to performances and results beyond its true ability by Conte. But that is what a good coach does. Poor coaches make average squads worse because the players lack belief in their methods.

Ventura turned out to be an international version of David Moyes at Manchester United: a man rewarded for years of steady, unremarkable management, but one who turned out to be far too limited to succeed in a big job.

By the time Russia 2018 comes around, Ventura will probably be long gone, with a new Italian coach attempting to unravel the mess he will inherit. But it will not soften the blow for one of world football's powerhouses when the action starts in Russia.

They are arguably the biggest nation ever to fail to qualify for the World Cup. England missed out twice in the 1970s, and again in 1994, but they have won the World Cup just once, in 1966, and never since threatened to win another.

Italy are World Cup royalty, a nation with the ultimate pedigree, yet they will be nowhere to be seen when the party starts in June. Russia 2018 will be poorer for Italy's absence; but no team has an unquestioned right to play at a World Cup, so Italy will have to take its medicine and suffer alone.

But from the final whistle against Sweden, you can be sure that plans were already being drawn up to ensure this never happens to Italy again.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_


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