'A catastrophe' if Italy don't qualify - coach
MILAN, Italy (AP):
Italy coach Gian Piero Ventura believes not qualifying for the World Cup would be "a catastrophe", while midfielder Marco Parolo says the Azzurri have "an obligation" to reach next year's tournament in Russia.
But there is a very real chance that when the tournament kicks off on June 14, it will be without the four-time champions.
Italy are second in Group G, three points behind Spain heading into the final two qualifiers. It would take a major upset for Spain to stumble against Albania and Israel - and allow the Azzurri to move into top spot and secure automatic qualification.
Italy should easily make the play-offs as they need just one point from their final two qualifying matches against Macedonia on Friday and Albania three days later to secure second spot.
However, they are facing somewhat of a crisis in midfield. Paris Saint-Germain's Marco Verratti and Roma pair Daniele De Rossi and Lorenzo Pellegrini have withdrawn because of injuries and been replaced by Roberto Gagliardini and the uncapped duo of Nicolo Barella and Bryan Cristante.
"Unfortunately, every so often it happens that one area is affected ... we have to try to stay positive," said Parolo, who is now the only experienced midfielder left in the Italy squad.
"Our aim remains to improve and qualify," he added. "Getting to the World Cup is an obligation for us."
The Azzurri are well aware of what failing to reach Russia would mean to the nation, with Italian football federation president Carlo Tavecchio and Giovanni Malago, president of the Italian National Olympic Committee, both underlining how disastrous it would be.
"We have only three days to prepare two matches, the priority is qualifying," Ventura said. "For Tavecchio, it would be the Apocalypse if we didn't reach the World Cup, for Malago a tragedy, and for me a catastrophe."