Arrigo Sacchi outlined the historic differences between Italian and Spanish football, how Giampiero Ventura and Maurizio Sarri “raised the cultural level.”
The World Cup qualifier kicks off at the Bernabeu in Madrid at 19.45 UK time (18.45 GMT).
Only the group winners go straight into the 2018 tournament in Russia, while the runners-up need to go through a play-off.
“I am optimistic, I believe that we’ll go to the World Cup regardless, maybe even directly as group winners. But let us remember that courage is always worth more than fear,” Sacchi told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
“I hope that the philosophies of Spain and Italy can come together. There are many Coaches here now who think football is more than just sport: it’s beauty, entertainment, emotion and art. A metaphor for life. It knows how to replicate strengths and weaknesses of the society it represents.
“We have never really defined our football in Italy. We still practice it the same way we did 2,000 years ago, with stadiums similar to ancient Roman arenas where, and it’s no coincidence, the crowd was baying for blood.
“We developed ferocious aggression and determination that compensated historically for our failings. Elsewhere, winning without merit is not winning.
“Spain always seek perfection: as that is impossible to reach, they are constantly learning and educating. The truth is, there wasn’t that much of a gap between Italian and Spanish football, so our character used to give us the upper hand, while they sought individual talents.
“The step up in quality for Spanish football came after my Milan gave a football lesson to Real Madrid: that day they realised that football cannot be interpreted individually, but as a team.
“They gradually brought in Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, already playing as a collective both on and off the ball. Added to their existing technique, they learned pressing and how to cover their defensive frailties.
“Spaniards run more risks than we do. Who in Italy would’ve played little Dani Carvajal against the giant Mario Mandzukic in the Champions League Final? But for someone who thinks football is a team sport, that’s no problem.”
Giampiero Ventura looks set to use a 4-2-4 formation, though he tested 3-4-1-2 during training this week, as Spain traditionally struggle against three-man defences.
“In any case, even if we did play three at the back, it’d still really be five. Spain have two centre-backs and two attacking full-backs. We have three centre-backs and two full-backs who stick to midfield. The system becomes 5-2-3, which means you are overwhelmed in midfield,” explained Sacchi.
“Ventura is doing a very good job in a complicated situation, considering what he has at his disposal. If our characteristics are defending and counter-attacks, it’s natural he’ll go back to that.
“I’ve always kept an eye on Ventura, his Bari was exciting. It was a 4-2-4 that became 4-4-2, because football is movement, yet it was spectacular.
“It’s wonderful when a Coach seeks a style like they do in Spain: Maurizio Sarri does it at Napoli, while Paulo Sousa tried at Fiorentina, as did Eusebio Di Francesco at Sassuolo and Marco Giampaolo at Sampdoria. Others are getting closer, because Gian Piero Gasperini has his approach with Atalanta, seeking superiority with an often ultra-attacking pressing game.”
Antonio Conte’s defend and counter-attack approach worked perfectly at Euro 2016 to defeat Spain, after Roberto Donadoni lost on penalties at Euro 2008.
“Juventus beat Real Madrid two years ago with the same style: if they are not at their best, you focus on a solid defence and hit them on the counter. Now people call it ‘transition,’ but it’s still a counter-attack.
“I like teams who try to force their style on to the game: it’s either down to arrogance or being aware of their own qualities. The greatest teams are remembered because they controlled the game, like my Milan.
“Ventura is very good, but unfortunately he has to deal with the culture at large: if there’s a tough test, you don’t trust your own strength, you focus on covering up.
“It’s strange, we won two World Cups without ever thinking we were superior to the rest. As Winston Churchill said, we play football matches as if they are wars and lose wars as if they are football matches. But we are growing.
“Football is played more with the mind than the feet. Napoli are now going against history. They went to Nice with a 2-0 first leg lead and attacked for 90 minutes: imagine if they had conceded a decisive goal on the counter, what people would’ve said! But Sarri dared, he raised the cultural level: now in Naples the fans applaud finishing third, because Sarri is giving style to Italian football, which doesn’t in itself have a recognisable style.
“Historically, Italian teams raise their game in the big matches. Spain will suffer a lot, we make everyone struggle, like a boxer nobody wants to face in the ring. I hope Ventura can give Italy the same style he gave to Bari.”