It was not a good international break for Giorgio Chiellini. The Italy defender was blatantly at fault for two goals that France scored in Friday’s 3-1 friendly defeat, and he followed up that performance with an even worse outing against Israel on Monday.
Expected to comfortably win that 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier, the Azzurri raced to a two-goal lead thanks to Graziano Pelle and Antonio Candreva, only to see Chiellini then commit more errors and make the game far closer than it should have been.
Already booked for taking down Tal Ben Haim—no, not the former Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea defender—following one mistake, he soon made another howler that allowed the Israel striker to go clean through on goal.
He made no mistake, beating the helpless Gigi Buffon with the sublime chip from the edge of the box shown above. However, Chiellini’s night went from bad to worse after half-time. He received a second yellow card for shirt pulling, his dismissal leaving Italy with only 10 men for the final 35 minutes of the game.
Much to his relief, his team-mates hung on, even extending their lead through Lazio striker Ciro Immobile to record a 3-1 victory. “It was an off night for me, but fortunately the squad was formidable and brought home the three points,” Chiellini wrote in the tweet below, a refreshingly honest appraisal of his own poor performance in Haifa.
Yet even as he laments his woeful form, the 32-year-old need not look far for a much better display for his national team with the UEFA Euro 2016 round-of-16 clash with Spain back in June still fresh in the memory.
That day saw him open the scoring, bundling home from close range after Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea had parried an Eder free-kick in greasy conditions in the first half.
His strike put the Azzurri on their way to the quarter-finals at the expense of the reigning champions, with Pelle bagging another goal to seal the victory. Chiellini was immense in defence, too; according to WhoScored.com, he recorded one tackle, five interceptions, three clearances and one block over the 90 minutes.
That performance and his showings against Israel and France could not be more different, but the Pisa native has always been a contradiction. Known as a rough and rugged defender, Chiellini completed a laurea in economics and commerce at the University of Turin in 2010.
His on-field persona could not be more different to the often-angry and borderline-violent manner in which he often plays, something he admitted being aware of during a recent interview with Paolo Bandini of the Guardian:
I met [Alvaro] Morata’s mum the other day, we had a train journey together, and she said the same thing: "When I saw you playing I never thought that you would turn out to be so calm and such a sweetie!" That has always been my character; on the pitch I have a strong temperament, but off the pitch I’m more serene, reflective. I manage to separate out those two things.
Over the course of his 11 years with Juventus, Chiellini has embraced that contrast for over 400 appearances, the majority of which have seen him earn a reputation as a superb central defender.
Even after he was sent off against Israel, Italy boss Giampiero Ventura found a way to praise the Bianconeri man. "Usually Chiellini makes two mistakes every five years, so he used up all his bonuses," the coach joked during a Sky Italia interview (h/t FourFourTwo).
But his poor form is beginning to concern some fans of the national team, stirring echoes of another great defender who faded badly toward the end of his career, as Venezia supporter Marco told Bleacher Report:
He reminds me a little of Fabio Cannavaro after the 2006 World Cup. He was poor in the early part of the following season but still raised his game when it counted...but I'm not sure if Chiellini can do the same.
The truth is Italy needs to find replacements for him and Andrea Barzagli soon—Barzagli was good, but will he be in two years? They could do with Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli really stepping up.
Looking to the future, that duo could be vital, but there are also questions about Chiellini at Juventus. In this previous post, the prospect of the Bianconeri changing from a back three to a four-man defence was discussed in detail, a move that could make the side a far greater attacking threat.
The follow-up question is which central defender would sit out? Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Chiellini all have their supporters, but the Twitter poll above brought an interesting result.
Over half the people responding would prefer to see Chiellini be the one to drop to the bench, but he is clearly still held in high regard by many people around the world after such a storied career.
“I think Chiellini has got another tournament in him," Juve fan Kristian told Bleacher Report after watching the Israel victory. "He's only 32 years old. He's probably a bit rusty, and he's always had the odd Titus Bramble moment! Quality defender, though!”
The past few campaigns have seen those “moments” become increasingly frequent. Juve’s run to the 2015 UEFA Champions League final saw him slip to hand Borussia Dortmund a goal in the round of 16, then be fortunate not to get sent off for the blatant handball against AS Monaco in the quarter-final that sparked a series of memes:
Last season, he received a red card in an October outing against Sassuolo for hauling down Domenico Berardi, the match before Juventus began their incredible run of victories that secured the Scudetto.
It remains to be seen whether his recent poor showings are more than early-season rust, but Morata appeared relieved to learn he will not face his former team-mate when Spain play Italy in October, telling La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t Football Italia):
I’ll be honest, I had a moment of great happiness when I got back to the dressing room and saw Chiellini had been sent off. What joy...and when I left Juve he "threatened"to make me to remember this match in Turin!
I want good things for Giorgio, I’m very fond of him, he gave me lots of advice and helped me with a lot of things in Turin, but I can honestly say my ankles are grateful the red card came out in Israel.
Clearly, strikers still fear Chiellini, but despite a career of delivering when it matters most, it may well be time for Juventus to feature the likes of Daniele Rugani and Medhi Benatia more frequently. Perhaps only on a temporary basis, but certainly soon.