With the all-important World Cup playoffs coming up, Italy will be looking to field their best unit against Sweden. Make no mistake about it, Leonardo Bonucci absolutely needs to start for gli Azzurri on Friday evening despite his early season blues. Since moving to Milan from rivals Juventus in a move that sent shockwaves throughout Italian football, Leonardo Bonucci has struggled to rekindle his past form.
Despite a plethora of summer signings, particularly in defence with Mateo Musacchio, Andrea Conti and Ricardo Rodriguez coming in, the rossoneri have still looked vulnerable at the back and have already conceded 16 goals this season. Snatching Italy’s best defender from the clutch of la Vecchia Signora was supposed to rectify their defensive woes, but it has done everything but that. Montella’s outfit currently sit in seventh place, nine points adrift fourth place Lazio having played one more game than them. Given the top five’s blistering form to the beginning of the season, Champions League qualification now appears solely feasible by winning this year’s edition of the Europa League.
Add in a two-game suspension for elbowing Genoa’s Aleandro Rosi and you can quickly deduce that early life in the nation’s fashion capital has been everything but rosy for the Italian international. Despite all this, the thirty-year-old remains Italy’s best option at the heart of defence alongside former teammate Giorgio Chiellini and absolutely deserves to start when gli Azzurri’s World Cup hopes are on the line against Sweden. The fact that fans are doubting him now remains puzzling to me. It’s a classic case of ‘what have you done for me lately?”
With the support system of the BBC in place and the insulation provided by Juve’s tactical scheme, Bonucci established himself as one of the best defenders in the world. Swapping Juve’s consolidated defensive setup for Milan’s work in progress was always going to be a difficult task. During his seven-year stint in Turin, Bonucci was seen as a leader in the locker room but had the luxury of deferring to Chiellini, Barzagli and Buffon when need be. At Milan, there’s frankly no one to turn to.
Immediately after leaving Juve, he was given the Milan armband and was expected to lead the rossoneri’s new-look troops by example based on his trophy-laden past. After spending six-consecutive Scudetto winning seasons with Juve, it’s only normal that it took him time to adapt to life at a rebuilding Milan. An adjustment period was always going to be on the cards for the former Juventus defender. After all, chemistry is not built overnight. I have no doubts that once Bonucci familiarizes himself with his new surroundings, he will become Italy’s best defender again.
Vincenzo Montella is yet to stamp his authority on this side particularly in the defensive third, further compounding Bonucci’s struggles. In the absence of a clear tactical setup even the best defenders in the world would struggle. Once Montella’s Milan assumes an identity, Bonucci will thrive again. Just this past weekend the Milan defender put in a solid performance in a 2-0 win v Sassuolo, the highlight of which was a goal-saving slide tackle on Simone Missiroli. Looking at the Italian team sheet, I can’t think of a more important player than Bonucci. Perhaps only Ciro Immobile on current form could rival him for that title.
The veteran defender featured in eight of Italy’s ten World Cup qualifiers and generally played well. Outside of a rare individual mistake against Israel, Bonucci was his typical, domineering self at the back. Whether Gian Piero Ventura opts for a back four or a back three, Bonucci needs to be there. Not only is he already familiar with Chiellini and Buffon, but the defender’s ball-playing ability cannot be understated in a tight affair. With the first leg set for Friday night in Stockholm, maintaining possession away from home could prove to be the difference.
At Euro 2016, Bonucci played a pivotal role in the Azzurri side that almost knocked out World champions Germany. In that tournament, the former Juventus man registered an inch-perfect long ball assist to Emanuele Giaccherini in Italy’s 2-0 v Belgium and dispatched a penalty against Die Mannschaft in a losing effort. Azzurri fans would be foolish to quickly forget his positive impact on the side in the past because of his current struggles.
The alternatives to Bonucci are two of his former teammates: Andrea Barzagli and Daniele Rugani. Since joining Juve for pennies on the dollar at 30 years old from VFL Wolfsburg, Barzagli has aged like fine wine getting better every season. In stark contrast to years past, Barzagli has looked prone to making an error in big games this season. The former Palermo man was shaky for Juve in defeats to Lazio in the Italian Supercup and Barcelona in the Champions League, conceding six goals in the process. Sweden’s Emil Forsberg is a tricky customer and could pose Barzagli some problems down Italy’s right with his pace and directness on the ball.
Rugani, the other alternative to the Milan man, has a stronger case to start than Barzagli after stepping up this past season for the Italian champions. Ironically, it was Bonucci’s unexpected departure that has opened the door for the young bianconero. The former Empoli man’s only and ultimately decisive fault is that he’s yet to play in a high-profile game outside of U-21 clashes. In his two seasons at Juve, Rugani has played a mere 181 minutes of Champions League football. Rugani has proven to be a solid defender in Serie A, but translating that form to the national team in a pressure cooker scenario like Friday is a completely different story. While I would like to see him brought through the ranks in the near future, a win or go home World Cup playoff isn’t the place to start and experiment.
Look, you may not like Bonucci. You may think he’s overrated and you can write him off all you want but if the Azzurri are going to overcome Sweden and book their ticket to Russia, Bonucci is going to play a big part in it. No ifs, ands or buts about it.
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