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Italy face World Cup demons in Luciano Spalletti's debut

MILAN – Luciano Spalletti will lead Italy on Saturday in what would be a symbolic debut for the coach as the Azzurri travel to North Macedonia in Euro 2024 qualifying, a chance to exorcise the ghosts of World Cup disaster.

The Italians have been going through something of an identity crisis for nearly two decades, unsure of their position in the global game and no longer feared as in decades past.

It was Group C opponents North Macedonia who sparked the most recent bout of self-reflection by beating them in the 2022 World Cup qualifying play-offs, ensuring that they did not qualify for Qatar.

That disaster did not just leave the Azzurri out of a second straight World Cup, it also wiped out the enormous amount of confidence earned from their triumph at the last Euro.

Spalletti, appointed only in August, has urged his team to forget the disappointment and focus on the future instead.

“We need to forget the bitterness of results which left scars on us and play a style of football that people like, a style of play that brings together an important footballing nation,” he said.

“The players have to be happy to wear the jersey, which has a great history. I want to see pride.”

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma agrees, even if he admitted that the players are “still angry” about missing out on the Qatar tournament.

“It’s not really revenge that drives us, because we want to focus on ourselves, but we know how important this match is and what happened the last time we played them,” he said.

Italy travel to Skopje for one of two matches which could decide their fate for next summer’s tournament in Germany, where they are aiming to retain their Euro crown.

Ukraine will visit the San Siro on Tuesday and after that match Italy will be hoping to be second to group leaders England in the automatic Euro spots.

Italy currently sit third on three points, nine behind England who have played two games more and more importantly three away from Ukraine. The Three Lions are likely to beat the Ukrainians on Saturday so that offers the Italians a chance to bridge the gap.

“I have the feeling that Italy has found the right man at the right time,” said Italy’s new delegation chief Gianluigi Buffon on Spalletti, who was brought in after guiding Napoli to their first league title since 1990.

“Him and his staff they speak about ideas, feelings and values which in my opinion are what we need to reach our objectives.” AFP