Were it possible to take a time machine back to Italy in the summer of 2018, there would be very few signs that there was a World Cup going on.
Under the ill-fated management of Gian Piero Ventura, the Azzurri had finished second to Spain in their qualifying group before losing to Sweden in the play-offs . It was the first time that they had failed to reach the World Cup since 1958, a fiasco which cost Ventura his job and sent shockwaves through Italian football.
For a country as calcio -mad as Italy, missing out on the tournament was almost unbearable. As such, there seemed to be an unspoken agreement to pretend it wasn’t happening and, barring the occasional huddle of tourists in the corner of an Irish pub, it was widely ignored.
Happily, there will be no need for the Italian public to shun Euro 2020 . Under the impossibly suave guidance of Roberto Mancini, the Azzurri are a force to be reckoned with once more.
Italy are unbeaten in 27 games, having won all 10 of their Euro 2020 qualifiers. If they get through their group stage fixtures against Turkey, Switzerland and Wales without defeat, they will equal a record 30-match unbeaten streak dating back to 1939.
After the humiliation of missing out on Russia 2018, Italy are back and looking to redeem themselves. With a favourable group and momentum behind them, they have the potential to make it to the latter stages of the tournament.
Style of play
The most notable improvement under Mancini has been in defence. Where Italy conceded 13 times in 16 matches under Ventura at a rate of 0.81 goals a game – not what’s expected from the nation that gave the world catenaccio , Paolo Maldini and Fabio Cannavaro – under Mancini they have shipped 14 in 32 at a rate of 0.44.
Despite retiring in the aftermath of Italy’s World Cup qualifying debacle, Giorgio Chiellini was called up again by Mancini and has been rejuvenated at international level. The same could be said of Leonardo Bonucci, with the pair reviving a centre-back pairing which has been a mainstay for Italy and Juventus over the years.
Mancini likes to play a 4-3-3, with Paris Saint-Germain loanee Alessandro Florenzi likely to start at right-back and one of Leonardo Spinazzola or Emerson– representing Roma and Chelsea respectively – at left-back.
Italy have generally dominated possession under Mancini, though it should be noted that they have not played many of Europe’s highest-ranked sides during his tenure. Presuming they reach the knockout stages, it will be interesting to see how they approach games against the top teams.
While the Azzurri have a dangerous set of wide forwards in Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne, Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi and Juventus’ Federico Chiesa, neither Lazio forward Ciro Immobile or Torino striker Andrea Belotti have entirely proved themselves at international level. As far as Mancini is concerned, there’s no time like the present.
In 32 games under Mancini, Italy have only lost two. One of those was against France and the other against Portugal, with both taking place back in 2018.
Mancini currently has a 71.88 percent win ratio with the national team, the best of any Italy coach who has presided over more than 10 matches.
The upwards trend under Mancini is undeniable but, ultimately, Italy will be judged on their performances at major tournaments. This is his first big test , giving him a chance to show just how far the Azzurri have come under his management.
Where Italy have returned to their defensive roots over the last three years, he has done far more for the side than simply revive Bonucci and Chiellini.
With a technically proficient, well balanced midfield marshalled by Jorginho and Marco Verratti – though the latter may miss the start of the tournament with a knee injury, giving Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli an opening – Mancini has set up his side to dominate the ball and set their own tempo. With Inter Milan’s Nicolo Barella as the creative spark in the middle of the park, Mancini has achieved a delicate equilibrium which, so far, has worked wonders.
It’s not often that a goalkeeper gets to be the star of the show, but Gianluigi Donnarumma is a massive deal in Italy.
While he’s often in the headlines because of his on-off contractual wrangles with AC Milan – with the latest reports suggesting that he’s on the verge of signing for PSG – he’s widely seen as the heir to Gianluigi Buffon, a goalkeeping icon and national hero.
Still only 22, Donnarumma is also a fascinating rarity in that he’s a goalkeeper who has matured early in his career.
If there’s a ceiling to his potential, he hasn’t found it yet. Along with Italy’s resurgent back four, he deserves major credit for their excellent defensive record over the last few years.
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One to watch
If Immobile and Belotti fail to find the net often enough, Mancini may opt to play his wildcard and introduce Giacomo Raspadori up front.
A surprise inclusion in the squad ahead of PSG’s Moise Kean, Raspadori was uncapped when he got his call up. He made his international debut in Italy’s warm-up friendly against the Czech Republic, coming on as a late substitute for Immobile in a 4-0 win.
Aged 21, he is the youngest player in the squad, but what he lacks in experience he makes up for in speed, instinct and agility.
After a breakthrough season with Sassuolo in which he scored six goals in 28 appearances, Raspadori has already proved that he can change games in Serie A.
When Sassuolo visited San Siro to take on AC Milan in April, Raspadori netted twice as the Neroverdi nabbed a 2-1 win. The first was a stab from five yards, the second a pinpoint effort into the far corner and, whether it’s a poacher’s effort or an inch-perfect finish, Mancini clearly backs him to score goals of comparable importance for Italy.
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