Questionable officiating wasn't the reason Italy lost to Sweden. No matter how hard head coach Gian Piero Ventura tried to change the narrative Friday, everyone with a rooting interest in the flailing Azzurri knew he was to blame.
Had a full-strength Italy lost to a far superior side, the 1-0 aggregate deficit would be easier to take. But Ventura, as he's done throughout this uninspiring qualifying campaign, has yet to select the best players available.
For one reason or another, the 69-year-old excluded Lorenzo Insigne, the most talented Italian in the game today, and teammate Jorginho, the best passer in Europe's top-five leagues. Ventura even sent Stephan El Shaarawy, the reigning Champions League Player of the Week, to the stands for "technical reasons." And the coach persisted with an ageing 3-5-2 formation that included a clearly unfit Andrea Belotti up front. (Belotti made just five touches before trotting off in the second half.)
Ventura's stubbornness isn't new. That he's still in charge of this team is an indictment of the Italian football federation, which had the temerity to give the former Torino manager a contract extension before he had accomplished anything of note.
It's not as if Italy is starving of talent. Good players who've proven themselves over the past 12 months have simply been ignored.
Tasked with overturning the 1-0 disadvantage Monday in Milan, Italy will only stand a chance if Ventura lets his best players shine.
What's clear is that Insigne and El Shaarawy have to start. Hampered by one-dimensional, route-one football, the Azzurri need wingers with the ability to cut in, break the lines, and take accurate shots on goal. They need a more dynamic approach.
At Friends Arena, Italy's wide men offered nothing but hopeful crosses into the box. Antonio Candreva and Matteo Darmian fired a couple of shots from long-range, but were limited going forward. At least Insigne and El Shaarawy will take on and ask questions of the defenders, while creating space for one of Belotti or Ciro Immobile.
Should Ventura insist on a back three, it's still possible to incorporate wingers. Insigne and El Shaarawy would tuck inside the wing-backs and focus more on attacking the final third. Whether Leonardo Spinazzola gets the nod over Darmian is a matter of preference, but on the right flank, it's imperative Alessandro Florenzi returns to the XI.
After recovering from consecutive ACL tears, Florenzi can provide excellent combination play with Roma teammate El Shaarawy. Now that it's do or die, Ventura must rely on this kind of chemistry to get the best results. Ditto for Jorginho, who can supply Insigne on the left.
With Marco Verratti suspended for the second leg, there's no better time to award Jorginho his full international debut. He's got the passing range and the vision to both recycle possession and propel balls forward. Daniele De Rossi's well past his prime and Marco Parolo is far too pedestrian on the ball, leaving Jorginho as the only true regista in this squad.
A change could also be made in the back three itself. The diminishing Andrea Barzagli remains vulnerable against fleet-footed Emil Forsberg, who will continue to attack Italy's right. Slotting Daniele Rugani into that centre-back role may help the team neutralise one of Sweden's biggest counter-attacking threats.
Given how static the Italians have been - opting for easier sideways passes instead of more inventive defence-splitting through balls - Ventura should even consider inserting Federico Bernardeschi in the hole behind one of Immobile or Belotti. Although Bernardeschi is a right winger by trade, the 22-year-old, nicknamed Brunelleschi for his technique and clever play, has the characteristics to be a No. 10.
With fewer center forwards and midfield destroyers on the pitch and more creative influences, Italy would see an uptick in movement. It cannot afford to hoof the ball into the box and pray for someone to latch onto it. These guys have to play smarter than that. Sweden doesn't offer much going forward, but it is an organised side that plays at a high tempo and counters well.
The sad thing is that Ventura likely won't do any of this. He's made excuses for everything that's happened and neglected to deploy formations Italy's internationals are familiar with. When Italy lost 3-0 to Spain, "experience" was apparently the difference. On Friday, the referee was apparently too lenient.
But make no mistake: If Italy misses the World Cup for the first time since 1958, the blame game starts and ends with Ventura.