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Ventura’s venture is on the right track

Italy’s Davide Zappacosta (left) battles for the ball with Yannick Gerhardt, of Germany, in a friendly.

Italy’s Davide Zappacosta (left) battles for the ball with Yannick Gerhardt, of Germany, in a friendly.

It was always going to be difficult for any Italy national team coach to replace Antonio Conte who quit the side after Euro 2016 to return to club football at the helm of Chelsea in the Premier League.

In 2014, ex-Juve mentor Conte had taken over the Azzurri from Cesare Prandelli (now at Valencia) in the wake of Italy’s second successive exit in the group stages of the World Cup.

Despite not ranking among the favourites, Italy did quite well in the European Championship finals, only going out in the quarter-finals after losing a penalty shoot-out to Germany.

In summer, there was a general feeling that Conte’s replacement – Giampiero Ventura – had little choice other than to assemble a new squad.

The decision to hire Ventura, 68, was taken mainly by Italy football federation chief Carlo Tavecchio. He justified his move by describing former Torino coach Ventura as a “footballing scholar”.

Before his appointment, Ventura was a modest coach and figured mostly in the third division in his playing career.

At club level, he only made his international debut two years ago, leading Torino to the round of 16 in the Europa League.

Before, Ventura was in charge of several teams including Lecce, Cagliari, Sampdoria, Udinese, Napoli, Messina, Verona, Pisa, Bari and Torino.

Ventura was all but impressed with the squad left behind by Conte.

In a recent interview, he said: “The European Championship left us with one of the oldest squads in the last 100 years.”

Clearly, that was an exaggeration but Ventura wanted to show that Conte was more focused on immediate success rather than building a strong team for the future.

The average age of Italy’s squad at Euro 2016 was 28 years, 10 months and 19 days.

Only Ireland, Russia, Czech Republic and Slovakia had older squads in the tournament.

Coverciano project

Ventura knows that should Italy qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals, team captain Gianluigi Buffon will be over 40 years, Andrea Barzagli 37, Giorgio Chiellini almost 34 and Leonardo Bonucci 31.

They are all key players for club and country but no longer untouchables so replacements have to be found.

Thus, Ventura has embarked on a new project, aimed mainly to introduce new blood in La Nazio-nale. Earlier this month, he called 22 youngsters, among whom seven Atalanta players and three from Serie B – Alessio Cragno, Amato Ciciretti (both Benevento) and Luca Garritano (Cesena) – for a three-day training camp at Coverciano.

This is the first of three similar exercises, with the other two now scheduled for next February and May.

Ventura’s operate is also being facilitated by clubs like Milan, Lazio and Torino, who like Atalanta, are giving promising young Italian players plenty of time on the field of play, also attaining very good results.

Meanwhile, Italy have already played four World Cup qualifiers, recording three away wins – vs Israel (3-1), Macedonia (3-2) and Liechtenstein (0-4) – and collecting a 1-1 home draw against group favourites Spain.

Currently, the Azzurri are joint-top with Spain on 10 points. Israel are second, a point adrift of the leading duo. Only the group winners qualify automatically for the finals (June 14-July 15, 2018) along with the best eight runners-up.

Italy have two winnable games coming up. On March 24, they host Gianni De Biasi’s Albania and on June 11 they play minnows Liechtenstein again. The decisive fixture is against Spain on September 2.

Italy will play two of their last three qualifiers at home (vs Israel on Sept. 5 and Macedonia on Oct.6).

An away trip to Albania on October 9 will bring the curtains down on Italy’s qualifying campaign.

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