When Italy coach Giampiero Ventura announced his squad on Saturday for the World Cup qualifiers against FYROM and Albania, he probably would not have foreseen that his midfield needed to be revolutionised in the space of days.
After the completion of Week 7 of Serie A action, a number Azzurri players had to withdraw from international duty due to injuries sustained at club level, and it is in central midfield where the team has been affected the most.
Established internationals Marco Verratti and Daniele De Rossi, as well as Roma starlet Lorenzo Pellegrini are unavailable and they have been replaced by promising youngsters Roberto Gagliardini, Nicolo Barella, and Bryan Cristante.
This leaves Marco Parolo as the most experienced central midfielder in the Italian national team at the moment with 30 caps but he has rarely had a starring role for his country so it will likely add more pressure on the youngsters to perform.
Gagliardini has been capped once before in a friendly, replacing De Rossi in a 2-1 victory away to The Netherlands in March. Although the 23-year-old has had limited playing time under Luciano Spalletti at Inter, Ventura has regularly selected the former Atalanta starlet since he became the Azzurri coach so the belief in his talent is there.
While Gagliardini is more of a destructive type who can also get into scoring positions, Barella is a more elegant and technical footballer. The 20-year-old Cagliari midfielder is a similar player to Verratti in terms of style of play and perhaps the closest thing to a like for like replacement.
He has featured regularly for the Isolani since returning from a loan spell at Como in the second half of the 2015-16 campaign, and he has attracted the interest of Italy’s big clubs, particularly AC Milan.
Barella played in the opening two matches for Italy at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in June before sustaining a wrist injury and he could end up making his senior debut less than six months after featuring in a major youth tournament.
Despite making his Serie A debut with Milan in November 2013, it has taken Cristante considerable to establish himself as a professional footballer, but he is now in Italy’s senior squad after finding his feet at Atalanta.
The 22-year-old replaced the aforementioned Gagliardini at La Dea and he had struggled for regular playing opportunities at Portuguese giants Benfica and then at provincial Italian clubs like Palermo and Pescara.
Under the tutelage of Orobici tactician Gian Piero Gasperini, Cristante has finally found the stability he has needed in the early stages of his career and he can contribute more to the offensive phase of the game than his predecessor in midfield.
The former Rossoneri starlet scored Atalanta’s equaliser in the 2-2 draw against Juventus in Serie A on Sunday evening with a towering header, and ironically he did that against Massimiliano Allegri, the coach who gave him his debut at Milan.
Italy is lacking in household names in a number of positions but with the selections of Gagliardini, Barella, and Cristante, Azzurri fans will get a glimpse of the national team’s future faster than originally anticipated.
Due to the absence of higher profile players, Ventura has been forced to play more youth out of necessity.