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Azzurri need to clear La Roja obstacle to qualify for World Cup 2018


Italy’s quest to reach the 2018 World Cup Russia is in good shape.

They have 16 points in six matches in Group G, with 18 goals scored against just four conceded. They are in good form following four consecutive wins, including a 5-0 bashing of minnows Liechtenstein in their last qualifying match.

The Azzurri are captained by veteran keeper Gianluigi Buffon, who leads the country in caps with a whopping 169 appearances and helped the team win the World Cup in 2006. Gigi is 39 years old and has more than 20 seasons in his belt, but he has been performing as one of the world’s best keepers, and he is still as hungry for glory as when he put on the Italia shirt for the first time 20 years ago.

Other timeless legends like Pirlo, Totti and De Rossi filled Italian headlines half a decade ago, but recently, the team have been enjoying a youth revolution, with scorers like Ciro Immobile, Andrea Belotti and Gian Lapadula taking on the mantle as the spearheads of the Italian attack.

These players are wreaking havoc in Europe’s top five leagues, using the Italian flair and grit to play against the strongest players in the world.

But Gian Piero Ventura’s men are more known for their stellar backline, with defenders like Leandro Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and the ageless Buffon between the sticks.

They might not be winning trophies right now, but they are right there at the top, always competing and always giving pride to the same kits that were once worn by Guiseppe Meazza, Paolo Maldini, Adolfo Baloncieri and Luigi Riva.

And the Azzuri might have been assured a spot in next year’s World Cup in Russia had they not been drawn to one of the toughest groups.

Only one team stand on their way in Group G. But the problem is, it’s not just any team. It’s Spain.

Seven years ago, La Roja conquered the world in South Africa and won its first World Cup, then followed it up by defending their European championship title in 2012. This Spain team are five years removed from the peak of their greatness, but they are still a team to be feared.

Under new coach Julen Lopetegui, who took reins last July 2016, Spain, like Italy, have been reinvigorated. La Roja won seven of their 10 games under the new manager, splashing 29 goals and conceding just seven times.

Italy had a hard time against these revitalized Spaniards and almost lost to them when they met earlier in the qualifiers. In that match at Juventus Stadium, Vitolo was able to convert Busquets’ setup to give the visiting La Roja the lead in the 55th minute, but the hosts scrapped for a draw as Daniele De Rossi scored from the spot with eight minutes left.

The qualifiers will resume in September, and Italy will get a chance to climb to the top of the group when they travel to the Spanish capital and meet La Roja at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.

Playing in front of a hostile crowd, against a top team who are enjoying a long successful honeymoon period with a new manager, we’ll see what this generation of Italians are made of.

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