Italy's lack of strikers means Antonio Conte must call in foreign-born firepower

A Different League: With a view to experimenting against England, the Azzurri boss has picked Palermo's Franco Vazquez and Sampdoria's Eder, born in Argentina and Brazil respectively

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Roy Hodgson is not the only international manager currently despairing at his lack of options. Antonio Conte – the Italy coach he faces on Tuesday – cannot make Hodgson’s claim that he has no players left in European club competition at the quarter-final stage, but he does find himself looking for Italian grandmothers so that he can pick strikers born in Brazil and Argentina.

Last season there were only 281 Italians playing across Europe’s top five leagues, leaving the three-time World Cup winners a long way behind Spain, who had 372, and France, who had 370. It was more than England’s paltry 172 but still reflects a shallow talent pool, especially in the search for the next Pippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero or Christian Vieri.

Italy’s new strike force once looked like being Giuseppe Rossi and Mario Balotelli, but the former’s career has been ruined by serious knee injuries and the latter has been wasting away. In Serie A it’s the same old faces. Luca Toni has 13 goals this season for Verona but he also has 37 years. Antonio Di Natale has scored 10 goals for Udinese yet he is 37, too.

Conte’s favoured front two to date – Simone Zaza and Ciro Immobile – are likely to start against Bulgaria on Saturday night in a Euro 2016 qualifier but have just 15 league goals between them this season at Sassuolo and Borussia Dortmund respectively. With a view to experimenting against England, Conte has picked Palermo’s Argentina-born attacking midfielder Franco Vazquez and the Sampdoria forward Eder Citadin Martins, born in Brazil.

As a pair they have 16 Serie A goals to their names this season, and at 26 and 28 respectively have a few more years ahead of them than Di Natale and Luca Toni. But not everyone is happy.

“If you play for Italy you should be Italian” said the Internazionale coach, Roberto Mancini. And by Italian he means born in Italy, not born in Brazil or Argentina to Italian parents or with Italian grandparents. Eder responded accusing Mancini of “stupidaggini”. The legendary Marcelo Lippi added: “If we were bringing in Cristiano Ronaldo or Leo Messi because of Italian parentage no one would be saying anything.”

Quality is the key and, while Conte sees none elsewhere, he can look to the diaspora and fall back on the fact that he is not breaking any rules – 83 players in the last World Cup were playing for countries where they had not been born.

Part of Mancini’s argument seems to be that the “ringers” do not have the quality – certainly not enough to merit overlooking products of the Italian youth system, into which so much energy has been invested.

England will test that, although perhaps not to a huge extent – Tuesday’s meeting brings together a team struggling to find centre-forwards and another hard pushed to find central defenders.

Difficult start for Real’s new wunderkind Odegaard

Norway is waiting excitedly to find out if it really does have a player destined to become one of the world greats. After all, why else would Real Madrid have paid £2.3m for the 16-year-old Martin Odegaard in January?

The Norway coach, Per-Mathias Hogmo, is set to pick Odegaard in Saturday's Euro 2016 qualifier in Croatia and it will be interesting to see how he fares because his start at Real Madrid’s B team, Castilla, has been anything but successful.

Castilla were top of a regional Third Division when he arrived and on course to qualify for the play-offs to the Second Division. But since Odegaard’s debut they have won only one game, lost their last four and are now in seventh place, four points off the lead.

There are suggestions that the other players do not like the fact that Odegaard trains with the first team three times a week and then starts Castilla games. If the B team are not promoted, the Norwegian will need to be loaned out at the end of the season. His development will not take another year of the Spanish Third Division.

No one at Real Madrid believes they have made a huge mistake. But neither had first-team coach Carlo Ancelotti seen enough to warrant playing him in the Champions League against Schalke recently just so Odegaard could become the youngest player ever to do so. There was pressure on Ancelotti but he resisted.

Talent is never enough and a well-planned career path can be crucial for a player. When he chose Real in January, the question was posed: “Have you not picked the club where it is most difficult for young players to reach the first team?” Anyone thinking of taking Odegaard on loan next season should be able to see him up against Luka Modric’s Croatia on Saturday.

Comments