Already at a historic low point following a failed World Cup qualification, Italy’s rebuilding effort begins this week with the team in mourning following the death of defender Davide Astori.
Interim coach Luigi Di Biagio will guide the team in friendlies against Argentina on Friday and England four days later.
“Something is missing. I can feel it even though I didn’t know Davide like a lot of the players did,” Biagio said Monday as the Azzurri opened their training camp at the Coverciano complex in Florence.
Earlier this month, thousands of fans lined up to bid Astori goodbye when his body lied on view in Coverciano.
“There’s something strange,” Di Biagio said. “But we’ve got to try to normalize things, because otherwise it all becomes devastating.”
The 31-year-old Astori was found dead in his hotel room two weeks ago after a suspected cardiac arrest before Fiorentina, his club, was to play Udinese. While Astori played only 14 times for Italy, his presence in the squad was a constant in recent seasons with 58 call ups.
For both friendlies, Italy will wear special shirts honoring Astori.
Astori’s absence will be even more detrimental for the friendlies since Giorgio Chiellini left the squad Monday with an injured left thigh.
“Giorgio’s injury is a problem that adds on to the absences of (Mattia) Caldara and (Alessio) Romagnoli and to Davide’s tragedy,” Di Biagio said. “We’ve lost four center backs.”
West Ham United defender Angelo Ogbonna was called up as a replacement for Chiellini, although it could be Juventus center back Daniele Rugani who partners Leonardo Bonucci.
The defense can also still rely on 40-year-old captain Gianluigi Buffon, who is back in the squad after rethinking his retirement plans announced immediately following the playoff loss to Sweden in November.
“Gigi is a monument and he’s here to unite but also to play,” Di Biagio said. “Whether he plays one or two matches I don’t know.
“Anyhow we have two others here who are ready to take his spot when he ages a bit,” the coach added. “(Gianluigi) Donnarumma is a great goalkeeper and (Mattia) Perin I coached with the under-20 team.
“As soon as Gigi is no longer here, those two will compete for the job.”
Di Biagio was promoted from the under-21 squad last month after Gian Piero Ventura was fired in the wake of the playoff loss.
Antonio Conte, Roberto Mancini and Carlo Ancelotti are being considered for the full-time job, along with Di Biagio.
“I know I have something on the line and I’ll try to put those who are choosing in difficulty,” Di Biagio said. “But that’s not the priority. We have other types of problems now.”
The failed qualification means Italy won’t play in the World Cup for the first time in six decades.
“Unfortunately you can’t change the past. We’re out of the World Cup and we have to start over,” Di Biagio said. “We’re not at the level of the best in the world but we’re also not among the worst.
“With a little bit of patience, we can recreate a great squad.”
While Di Biagio has been criticized for urging Buffon to stay with the squad and recalling other veteran players, he did call up Patrick Cutrone and Federico Chiesa, both 20-year-old forwards.
Cutrone has developed into a reliable scorer for AC Milan this season while Chiesa, the son of former Italy forward Enrico Chiesa, has shown off his versatility at Fiorentina, where he has also played in an attacking midfield position.
Mario Balotelli remained excluded despite his strong form with Nice.
Balotelli has scored 22 goals in 30 matches in all competitions for Nice this season. Still, the temperamental forward hasn’t played for Italy since the 2014 World Cup.
“The numbers are very clear for the forwards but they have to be combined with certain types of performances,” Di Biagio said when asked about Balotelli. “I watched, I evaluated and I decided. … That’s it for now but I’ll continue to follow him.”
Italy meets Argentina at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium then visits England at Wembley Stadium in London.
Di Biagio wants to see an attacking squad.
“The concept of good soccer as far as I’m concerned means having courage: sending the fullbacks forward to attack while finding the right balance between attack and defense and pressing the opponent,” he said. “We have to have the courage to enter their half and try to impose ourselves.”