Italy qualified for Euro 2020 with a 100 percent record and return to the international scene following their absence at the 2018 World Cup.
It was almost scandalous, Italy not qualifying for football’s quadrennial carnival in Russia, a first in the nation’s history since 1958. As the second-most successful country in the sport, with four gold stars adorning the Azzurri crest, their absence from the 2018 tournament felt almost wrong, a glitch in the football matrix.
Gianluigi Buffon in tears remains the lasting image from Gian Piero Ventura’s ill-fated stint, and as the inquest unravelled for months on end, Roberto Mancini was appointed head coach exactly one month before Russia 2018 kicked off, with the message clear: rebuild, regroup and prepare for Euro 2020.
Nothing of tangible merit has been achieved thus far, but the ex-Man City coach has enjoyed a trailblazing three years in the dugout, setting a national record for most victories in a single calendar year, and currently boasting the second-best win ratio of any Italy manager who has taken charge of more than 10 games.
In short: optimism is rife in Southern Europe and Mancini enters this tournament bright eyed and bushy tailed. So, what can we expect from Gli Azzurri?
The best players Italy are bringing to Euro 2020:
Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Donnarumma
After Gianluigi Buffon monopolised the No. 1 berth for just over two decades, during which time he accumulated 176 caps (a national record) and lifted the 2006 World Cup, the comedown was always going to be felt and the void almost impossible to fill. How do you replace someone who is irreplaceable?
Fortunately for Mancini, he has a burgeoning shot-stopper ready to consolidate his grip on the position for a similar length of time to Buffon. In Donnarumma, Gli Azzurri truly have a ‘keeper chiselled from the same dextrous mould as Buffon, and someone who, at just 22, is a world-class ‘keeper already.
The AC Milan vice-captain has already made over 200 appearances for his boyhood club, and in fitting homage to his predecessor, Buffon, he recently became the youngest player to reach 200 appearances in Serie A (in the era of three points for a win), beating the Juventus ‘keeper’s previous record.
Defence: Leonardo Bonucci
Unlike Joachim Low, who heralded the start of a new era for Germany by axing a panoply of his ‘old guard’, Mancini took a more holistic approach following Italy’s own football catastrophe. He has brought in young stars like Alessandro Bastoni, but also kept the spine of Italy from the 2010s.
Giorgio Chiellini, at 36, remains skipper of the nation, but his game has perhaps dulled slightly this season owing to continual spells on the sidelines. However, Leonardo Bonucci remains as important as ever for Juventus and Italy, and is arguably Mancini’s most relied-upon centre-back.
Midfield: Nicolo Barella
The days of Andrea Pirlo setting the tempo, Daniele De Rossi oozing midfield class, and Gennaro Gattuso, in typical hatchet-man style, snapping at heels with relish, are long gone, but the emergence of Nicolo Barella has just facilitated a change in mood in Southern Europe, one redolent of the noughties.
Barella has been the cornerstone of Inter’s rise to the Serie A summit this season and is now (arguably) Mancini’s most important player across the entire squad. The magnificent mezzala is the complete package, bringing bundles of creativity, vision, a world class passing range, and a ball-carrying drive that has been likened to Steven Gerrard.
Attack: Federico Chiesa
It’s been a testing transition for Pirlo in the Old Lady dugout, but the loan signing of Federico Chiesa has proved an inspired move from the club. With six goals and five assists for Juve this term (Serie A), the Fiorentina loanee has proven a prolific utility man, slotting in on either flank, and is taking the Chiesa dynasty to the next level.
His father, Enrico, donned the colours of Italy on 22 occasions, which Federico has already beaten (24 caps). Federico’s versatility will be key for Mancini, but his attacking intelligence, movement and ability to pick a pass could prove devastating in full motion as he dovetails alongside one of either Andrea Belotti, Ciro Immobile or even Moise Kean, a collection of goalscoring fiends unparalleled in recent years for Italy.
The head coach: Roberto Mancini
As alluded to, Mancini enters this tournament riding the crest of a wave and with managerial pedigree. He has taken charge of some of Europe’s most prestigious clubs, including Lazio, Inter Milan and Man City, winning silverware for fun and leaving a legacy behind where ever he has gone.
For Italy, it has been a similar story (as far as results are concerned). He blitzed through Group J of the Euro 2020 qualifiers, winning all 10 games, and finished top of Group A1 in the recent Nations League, progressing to the knockouts, where they face Spain in the semi-finals this October.
The apotheosis of this early success for football’s sleeping giant has seen widespread praise flowing in from all angles, notably by World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, who believes Mancini has ‘recovered the beautiful image of Italy’s football’.
“Mancini thinks like me. He has the same impatience in understanding the value of the team,” the esteemed coach told Gazzetta dello Sport last year.
Mancini has largely been wedded to a 4-3-3 system, with a fluid attacking trident central to his philosophy. In World Cup qualifying in March, he regularly rotated the attack but the pattern of play remained similar, with one of Belotti or Immobile leading the line, and two of either Lorenzo Insigne, Chiesa, Federico Bernardeschi or Domenico Berardi offering support on the flanks (Nicolo Zaniolo is still injured and confirmed to miss the Euros).
The midfield three offers a nice blend of qualities, with Jorginho the preferred deep-lying playmaker, setting the pace for proceedings, while Barella is largely utilised as a No.8, pushing forward almost as a pseudo-playmaker and offering support. Manuel Locatelli is the all-action unit, offering the zest and energy in the middle of the park.
In defence, it’s a fairly commonplace back four with overlapping wing-backs. In true Italian style, the centre-backs are well-versed in the art of defending and can distribute as well as any midfield maestro. On the flanks, midfielder-turned-defender Alessandro Florenzi is indispensable at right-back and pushes high up with gusto, while Emerson remains key on the left, despite his lack of minutes at club level.
The form guide
Euro 2020 Qualifying: WWWWWWWWWW
As mentioned, Italy were all-conquering in the qualifiers, breezing past Finland, Greece, Bosnia, Liechtenstein and Armenia with consummate ease, the latter of whom they humbled 9-1 in Palermo. Belotti, for his troubles, finished the campaign on four goals, a best for the nation.
Recent fixtures: WWWWWWDD
Qualification for the 2022 World Cup started in March and Italy got things kicked off in perfect fashion, beating Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania to take control of their group. Italy also enjoyed success in the Nations League, finishing first in Group A1, capping the group with wins over Poland and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Chances of winning:
There is no question this current version of Gli Azzurri is not quite on a par with the World Cup winners of the noughties, a golden era when Lippi had a surfeit of talent, including Pirlo, Francesco Totti, De Rossi and Alessandro Nesta all in their prime. Having missed out on the chance to compete at Russia 2018 and descended into relative international obscurity, Italy naturally enter this contest with relatively high odds compared to the favourites.
Sky Bet are offering odds of 11/1 for Italy to replicate their 1968 success and win the tournament outright. They are down as eighth-favourites to clinch the coveted international silverware, with the likes of Portugal, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium and England all coming in with lower odds.
The Southern European nation may have masterminded a flawless qualification campaign but in Nations League matches against more capable nations, they haven’t quite been as dominant, drawing with the Netherlands, Poland and Bosnia last autumn. They remained unbeaten but those draws certainly showed a vulnerability in Mancini’s side.