The last -- and only -- time Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup was back in 1958. Italy went into their final match against Northern Ireland needing a draw. They lost, 2-1. And, note, UEFA had nine slots back then; today, they have 12.
That ought to put some context to the precipice on which Gian Piero Ventura's crew are standing. And soon we'll know if they've nose-dived off it. If they do, Ventura will be the uber-scapegoat, and rightly so. Everything about the 1-0 defeat in the away leg playoff last Friday night in Sweden was wrong: attitude, style of play, formation and personnel. And the result was an abysmal first 45 minutes, which was possibly as bad as the Azzurri have played in recent memory. Things improved slightly in the second half, but, as sometimes happens, that's when Sweden scored, with the help of a Daniele De Rossi deflection.
You could chalk it up to football being a game of millimetres -- Jakob Johansson's shot was deflected past Gianluigi Buffon while Matteo Darmian's strike smacked against the post -- but you'd be fooling yourself. Just as you'd be fooling yourself if you buy into the narrative -- peddled by Ventura -- that referee Cuneyt Cakir could and should have sent off Marcus Berg.
Sure, a different referee on a different night might have done just that, but what you want above all is consistency, and Cakir was consistent throughout the night. Not to mention the fact that, despite Leonardo Bonucci's broken nose, it's hard to swallow the notion that the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, De Rossi and Bonucci himself were somehow physically rattled or intimidated by the odd Berg or Ola Toivonen elbow. They're big boys who've been around the block and know how to handle themselves.
Things could have gone differently. That's football. It's a low-scoring game where individual incidents take on an outsized importance, but that's why a good team give themselves the best possible chance to seize upon breaks that go their way and overcome those that don't. And Italy were not a good team against Sweden on Friday, just as they haven't been since the 3-0 defeat at the Bernabeu against Spain in September.
On the FC TV show, I said Sweden were a "fairly awful" side. Let me retract that. They are not a particularly good side as they navigate the transition between generations. They have an outstanding individual (Emil Forsberg), some serviceable veterans (Albin Ekdal, Sebastian Larsson, Andreas Granqvist) and some youngsters who may or may not develop into something (Victor Lindelof, Ludwig Augustinsson, Emil Krafth), but what they had against Azzurri was the correct game plan, the will and ability to execute it, and the belief in what they were doing.
They maximized their odds, and, when a spot of good luck came, they seized it. Against Ventura's crew, that was enough.
Italy need to play the FIFA rankings game
Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of blame to be heaped on Ventura -- even if things go Italy's way on Monday night. The players need to share the load too. This may not be a vintage Azzurri group -- there's a glut of gifted youngsters who are deemed "not yet ready" and some veterans who are sticking around too long -- but it is several levels better than what Antonio Conte had to deal with in 2016.
Still, there's a collective failure at FA level. In the summer of 2014, I got an email from a guy named Eduard Ranghuic -- a mathematician who works with federations to help them play the FIFA rankings game. He asked if I could put him in touch with Conte and the Italian FA. I forwarded his email. As far as I know, he never heard back.
My mind went back to Ranghuic, when Italy were second seeds in the World Cup qualifying draw and ended up in the same group as Spain, which, incidentally, is the reason they're in the playoffs. Countries are seeded based on FIFA rankings which are, essentially, a mathematical formula based on results over the past four years. More recent results are weighted more heavily, as are competitive games, and matches against stronger opponents matter more.
Like all systems, it can be "gamed." That's what Ranghuic helps teams do, by carefully scheduling the right opponents at the right time. And that's exactly what Italy failed to do. The pots for the draw were based on FIFA rankings as of July 2015, and those were based on results over the past four years. In that timeframe, Italy won both their qualifying groups and reached the final of Euro 2012 (good) and were eliminated in the group stage of the 2014 World Cup (not so good, but at least they won a game).
Where they were terrible was in friendlies. They won just five of 21 in that time period, drawing with the likes of Haiti, Ireland and Luxembourg, and losing to the United States and Russia. That combination of not taking friendlies seriously while scheduling the wrong opponents at the wrong time proved lethal. And it's a big part of the reason why the likes of Austria, Slovakia, Wales and Romania were all ranked ahead of the Azzurri at the time of the draw. The FIFA rankings are far from perfect. But they do matter, and they're based on a straight mathematical formula. Clever FAs pay attention to this. Foolish ones don't and pay a price.
VAR would have helped Northern Ireland
There is no video assistant referee (VAR) in World Cup qualifiers or playoffs. In fact, there's no additional assistant referee (AAR) either. Whatever your thoughts on VAR, it's hard to imagine Northern Ireland are going to be against it following the penalty awarded against them in the first leg, when Xherdan Shaqiri's shot caromed off Corry Evans' shoulder. In the end, it was the difference between the two sides.
Awarding the penalty was an entirely wrong decision by an experienced referee, Ovidiu Hategan. He made a mistake, because even the best officials make mistakes. Had he the chance to see it again, I'm convinced he would have reversed the call. Northern Ireland might still not have made the World Cup, but a lot of acrimony would have been spared.
More pressure in UCL or World Cup playoffs?
The home-and-away format -- and huge stakes -- in World Cup playoffs lend themselves to cagey affairs. Of the six first legs -- four in UEFA and the two inter-confederation playoffs -- three resulted in 0-0 draws, while the other two (Sweden vs. Italy and Northern Ireland vs. Switzerland) finished 1-0. The one exception was Croatia's resounding 4-1 win over Greece, and even that was facilitated by two defensive blunders from the Greeks in the first half.
That's the conventional wisdom anyway. But then why doesn't it happen in the late knockout rounds of the Champions League?
It's just a theory, but perhaps it's the fact that there's less fear of failure in the Champions League and, perhaps more important, club sides that go deep in the competition are more used to playing attacking football. Why? Because that's what the vast majority of them play week in, week out in their domestic leagues. That's what they're used to doing. That's what they've been trained to do.
National sides don't get the luxury of training together all year. Players come and go, and in those circumstances, it's often easier to set up defensively. Throw in the pressure (you're playing for your country after all) and the fact that teams who go to the playoffs tend not to be the creme de la creme, and that's probably why we see what we've witnessed thus far. Tons of tension and drama but little in the way of great football.
Neymar's tears his way of coping
Last week, Marcelo Bechler, the man who broke the story that Neymar would leave Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain, went on Spanish radio and talked openly about how the Brazilian is beginning to regret his €222 million move to Ligue 1, adding that the relationship with boss Unai Emery is cold and speculating about a return to La Liga (to Real Madrid, no less).
And after Brazil's friendly with Japan, Neymar let loose at the media, denying the stories and talking about how great he's finding life in Paris.
I don't know Neymar personally, nor do I know Bechler. What I do know is that very few players of Neymar's level have been as scrutinised and have had to deal with so much pressure since the age of 16. And while some, like my ESPN FC colleagues, slammed him for his tears, I thought it was genuine and see nothing wrong with it: Different people express themselves in different ways.
Whether Neymar is unhappy at PSG or not, whether he thinks Emery is a great coach and Edinson Cavani a wonderful teammate or not, is rather immaterial. He's a professional footballer: He signed up for this, and he's getting handsomely rewarded for it. Beyond that, when you move for a world-record fee from a club like Barcelona to one like PSG (yes, history and prestige matters and PSG simply aren't there yet) people will speculate how you're getting on. Particularly with all the other factors in the background, from the penalty row with Cavani, to the fact that Emery isn't an untouchable coaching deity, to the shadow of financial fair play sanctions.
Neymar grew up in a goldfish bowl, and he should know that better than most. Perceptions exist. If they're true, you accept them; if they're not, you don't need to worry about it too much because the people you see every day -- your teammates, your coaching staff -- can read you like a book with your actions and behaviour. And stuff like this, if untrue, gets forgotten pretty quickly.
That said, the world Neymar inhabits is almost unique to him by virtue of who he is, where he's from and what he's done thus far. If some tears at a news conference are a by-product of it, I have no problem with it whatsoever. Everyone finds their own way of coping.
Man United can take time on Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho's contract at Old Trafford expires in June 2019 and, as he's approaching the mid-point, it's inevitable that both parties want to talk about an extension. ESPN FC has reported there has been no significant progress since preliminary talks back in September, so (surprise, surprise) we've had stories linking him to PSG.
Manchester United aren't in a hurry. If they do extend his deal, their intention is to do it on their terms and in their own time. And frankly, they're right. For all his success, Mourinho's options -- and therefore his leverage -- are somewhat limited right now.
He's not going back to La Liga or Serie A; Bayern appear hugely improbable, as does a return to Chelsea; Arsenal, after Arsene Wenger's departure (assuming that ever happens), would be not just a step down, but a tumble down the stairwell; Jurgen Klopp is not going anywhere at Liverpool.
By the simple process of elimination, the only option is PSG. But Mourinho and his advisers know full well that nothing can happen until we get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the Parisians in terms of FFP. And even if they somehow get the green light (which gut instinct says is unlikely), United will still have him under contract for a year, which means they can charge some pretty hefty compensation.
I've been critical of Ed Woodward and United in the past. But in terms of how they're managing the Mourinho situation right now, they're doing all the right things. There is no rush on this whatsoever.