Italy relying on Immobile to reach 2018 World Cup

October 3, 2017
Italy's national soccer team head coach Gian Piero Ventura attends a press conference at the Coverciano Sports Center near Florence, Italy, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. Italy will play against Macedonia in a World Cup Group G qualifying soccer match on Friday. (Maurizio Degl'Innocenti/ANSA via AP)

MILAN (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 champion.

Italy is 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 playoffs as it needs just one point from its final two qualifying matches against Macedonia on Friday and Albania three days later to secure second spot.

However, it is 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 Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti and Roma pair Daniele De Rossi and Lorenzo Pellegrini have withdrawn because of injuries and been replaced by Roberto Gagliardini and the uncapped duo of Nicolo Barella and Bryan Cristante.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.”

With Ventura still ignoring Nice forward Mario Balotelli and Torino’s Andrea Belotti sidelined for a month with injury, Italy will be relying on Parolo’s Lazio teammate Ciro Immobile to provide the goals and a place in next year’s tournament.

Immobile has scored in all but two of Lazio’s matches this season in all competitions and also netted the winner in Italy’s 1-0 victory over Israel last month.

His tally of nine in the opening seven league matches is second only to Paulo Dybala in the Serie A goalscoring charts as he looks to challenge for a second top-scorer award.

Immobile first won the prize in 2014, scoring 22 goals for Torino. That prompted a move to Borussia Dortmund but he scored just three goals in 24 Bundesliga matches and had an equally unhappy spell at Sevilla.

He spent the second half of the 2015/16 season back at Torino on loan before making his return back to Italy permanent with a transfer to Lazio.

And it’s in the Italian capital that Immobile has been reborn.

He scored 23 times in the league last season and the 27-year-old striker looks set to better that tally this campaign.

“Ciro is in great form, he’s strong, sees the goal really clearly,” Parolo said. “He’s found full confidence at Lazio, he feels appreciated by everyone.”

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