Football not ‘coming to Rome’: Richard Buxton
Draw with N. Ireland means Euro champs Italy need play-offs to qualify for Qatar
Italy's footballing fairy tale is in danger of going from rags to riches and straight back.
Four months on from their Euro 2020 triumph, Roberto Mancini's side are back at the crossroads with the threat of a second World Cup qualification shortfall looming large.
Gatecrashing England's backyard jamboree last July marked an appropriate finish to a thrilling Finals which their co-hosts had sullied through an array of off-field boorishness.
But the Azzurri's penalty shoot-out victory at Wembley is increasingly a distant memory in the wake of a draw with Northern Ireland yesterday morning (Singapore time) that leaves their bid to reach next year's tournament in Qatar at the mercy of the play-offs.
Leonardo Bonucci's boast that football was "coming to Rome", screamed joyously into a camera, has been replaced by a more forthright message as the defender responded to the Windsor Park stalemate with talk of a need to "rediscover the joy" in their game.
Conversely, Mancini remains wedded to a mindset that success lies in the destination instead of the journey for his team, insisting that their route to Qatar is largely irrelevant.
Missing out on successive World Cups, however, would lead to a national outcry.
Only once had their noses been pressed against the glass before the ignominy of their most recent absence in 2018. Ironically, it was the same setting and opposition that provided the first mark on Italy's previously ever-present status on the global stage.
Half a century on, Mancini swept in with ideas as razor-sharp as his match-day suits.
Mere weeks before Russia opened its doors to the rest of the football world, he had arrived to transmit the same mentality which ended Manchester City's 35-year trophy drought and propelled them to a first English Premier League title just 12 months later.
His emphasis on collective qualities over individual ones rejuvenated a team who conquered the continental pinnacle on solidity at both ends of the pitch, typified by the imperious performances of Gianluigi Donnarumma and Federico Chiesa at the Euros.
Yet, both appeared heavily out of sorts in Belfast against their regimented hosts.
Chiesa, especially, has regressed from the game-changing cameos which fuelled a growing belief that Italy's long-awaited search for a prolific attacker had finally ended.
Consensus now suggests that, much like the end of his time at the Etihad, Mancini is actually the one approaching a final juncture with the reigning European champions.
Admittedly, he has not been helped by the ongoing inconsistency of Jorginho, one of yesterday's more notable sub-par performers.
The Chelsea midfielder's coronation as Uefa Player of the Year earlier this season has merely deepened his crisis of confidence.
A late penalty miss against Switzerland in last week's penultimate qualifier arguably tipped the balance in their Group C rivals' favour, yet Jorginho's issues run far deeper.
So, too, does Italy's recent World Cup predicament.
Since becoming world champions 15 years ago, they have failed to reach a knockout match in the competition; suffering consecutive group-stage exits in 2010 and 2014.
History also indicates that a potential rematch with Sweden, their tormentors at the final hurdle for Russia, in March's play-offs does not offer genuine hope of progressing. They have never beaten the Blagult in Sweden.
Should next week's draw throw up that seemingly inevitable pairing, Mancini will need to prove himself as a master of reinvention rather than the architect of their downfall.