Has the squadra azzurra lost its mystique?

The Italian jerseys at the Ponferrada World Championships will bear the name of the late Alfredo Martini, an apt tribute to the former national coach who did more than anyone to build the aura that surrounds the team, but there is a growing sense that the squadra azzurra's reputation no longer intimidates as it did in those halcyon days when Italy won a string of world titles.
Martini's lengthy tenure yielded a rich harvest of autumn gold: seven rainbow jerseys in 22 years, and whether they won or they lost, the World Championship road race seemed invariably to be raced on Italy's terms. The man who followed Martini as commissario tecnico – after Antonio Fusi's unsuccessful spell in the late 1990s – was his fellow Tuscan Franco Ballerini, and he quickly set about restoring what lustre had been lost during that brief interregnum, winning four world titles before his tragic death in 2010.

However since 2008 Italy hasn't managed to land a medal of any hue and during Paolo Bettini's time at the helm, reached something of a nadir. Falling short of the podium is one thing, but drifting into irrelevance, as was the case in Copenhagen in 2011 when Daniele Bennati took an anonymous 13th, is quite another. Valkenburg a year later was scarcely better (indeed, the best-placed Italian was ­ again a lowly 13th), and although Bettini's azzurri saved faced on home roads with an aggressive collective showing and Vincenzo Nibali's fourth place in Florence last year, the Italians arrive in Ponferrada more in hope than expectation.
Cassani's debut

It's perhaps telling that the greatest excitement around this Italian squad has been generated by the man who has replaced Bettini. Davide Cassani, often the regista or road captain under Martini, left punditry duties with Italian television to answer the call as commissario tecnico, and the hope in Italy is that he can provide a revival of glory days past.  "Facci sognare” – "Make us dream" – read the heading of TuttoBici's pre-Worlds issue, but the realist in Cassani must know that landing the rainbow jersey in Ponferrada might prove just that.
When Cassani unveiled his pre-selection earlier in the month, he playfully displayed a graphic with the riders aligned in the classic football formation of 4-4-2, and like any Italian mister worth his salt, there is a solid foundation at the back. In the absence of Luca Paolini, Daniele Bennati takes up the mantle of regista, a fitting recognition of his smooth conversion to the role at Tinkoff-Saxo. There are plenty of other strongmen in the ranks – Alessandro De Marchi, Manuel Quinziato, Giampaolo Caruso and Fabio Aru, for instance – but the problem for Cassani is finding a striker to put the ball in the net and winning the rainbow jersey.
"The feeling in Italy, and probably of Cassani himself, is that he has quite a strong team, full of good riders coming out of the Vuelta on form, but perhaps without a man capable of winning this particular Worlds, at least on paper," says Ciro Scognamiglio of Gazzetta dello Sport.
Unlike Martini's era, when he could field the likes of Moreno Argentin, Gianni Bugno, Maurizio Fondriest and Claudio Chiappucci in the same team, or Ballerini's, when he could afford to banish Michele Bartoli from the set-up completely, there is a dearth of top-drawer talent in the Italian ranks.
Vincenzo Nibali is on hand, of course, and though the course seems far from ideal for the Sicilian, under normal circumstances he is a redoubtable performer on all terrains. He has barely raced since winning the Tour de France in July, however, and the latest word from the Italian camp is that he is hampered by the after-effects of his crash at the Tre Valli Varesine last week.
It will require considerable invention if Nibali, the team's fantasista, is to upset the odds here, but Cassani seems to be without much of an alternative or a big name team leader. In the event of a group finish in Ponferrada, Sonny Colbrelli is ostensibly the man entrusted with the sprinter's role for Italy, and the Bardiani-CSF man is certainly mining a rich seam of form, winning the GP Prato and Memorial Pantani at the weekend.
Colbrelli's sixth place finish at Milan-San Remo suggests that the 24-year-old has the distance in his legs, too, yet it seems hard to imagine that he can conjure up a finish of the quality to see off the likes of John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan or Michael Matthews.
Under 23 talent has dried up
Italy's underwhelming approach to these Worlds is perhaps simply a reflection of a deeper malaise within the country's cycling scene. No Italian has won a major classic since Damiano Cunego's last Tour of Lombardy six years ago, and far more pressingly, the supply lines at underage level have abruptly dried up.
Between 1996 and 2002, Italy won four of the first seven under-23 Worlds road races and 11 of the 21 medals on offer. In the 11 editions since, only Simone Ponzi, second in Varese in 2008, has won a medal of any colour for the azzurri. In the junior version, Diego Ulissi is Italy's only champion this century.
That "golden generation" of late 1990s under-23 talent included riders who went on to serve doping bans as professionals, such as Ivan Basso and Danilo Di Luca, and the growing strength of nations from outside cycling's traditional western European heartland has naturally made for a more competitive environment. But a glance north of the Alps shows how well the French youth system has responded to the new reality in comparison to Italy's demise.
The very fact that Cassani has opted for Colbrelli over Filippo Pozzato shows that he is keen to redress some of those issues in youth development in Italy.
"If Colbrelli finishes sixth in a sprint, it would be seen as a success or at least a good sign for the future, whereas if Pozzato did the same, it would be viewed as a bit of a failure," Scognamiglio says. "While Pozzato's form was growing in recent weeks, Cassani clearly didn't feel he was going to beat the likes of Degenkolb and Sagan in a sprint. In terms of average age, this isn't a young team, but there are some very young riders in there, like Aru, Cobrelli and Davide Formolo."

Cassani's rallying cry for Sunday's road race is "organised chaos". Unlike in Zolder or Madrid, say, where Italy looked to shut down the peloton with help from their many friends in other jerseys, they will seek to break the bunch apart in Ponferrada. As in Florence twelve months ago, the Italians will make the race as hard as possible and send the likes of De Marchi and Caruso up the road in the finale of the race and force the others to try and bring order to affairs.
Quite what fruit those labours yield remains to be seen, and the jury is out too as to what result would be judged acceptable by the Italian press, who are currently camped out at the team's ritiro in Bra near Turin.

"Last year, Nibali's fourth place was received quite well because of the circumstances of the race, so it's hard to say right now what would be deemed a good result," says Scognamiglio.
Win or lose, of course, the positives and the polemics from the Italian expedition, Ponferrada will be parsed and analysed all winter. In that sense at the very least, the mystique of the squadra azzurra endures and the Italian love affair with the world championships continues unabated.

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