Football Features

Italy Euro 2020: Best players, manager, tactics, form and chance of winning

By Ben Green

Published: 9:30, 7 July 2021

Italy have returned to the international scene following their absence at the 2018 World Cup with a bang, reaching the final at Wembley this Sunday, where they face one of England or Denmark.

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.

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 best win ratio of any Italy manager who has taken charge of more than 10 games.

A big reason behind that has been Italy’s incredible Euro 2020 form with the Gli Azzurri making it to the final. So, what can we expect from them on Sunday?

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The best players Italy have brought 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 soon-to-be-former AC Milan man has already made over 200 appearances for the Rossoneri, 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 and an absolute force at the back, while Leonardo Bonucci is also just 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 was a testing transition for Pirlo in the Old Lady dugout, which ultimately cost him his job, but the loan signing of Federico Chiesa proved an inspired move from the club. With seven goals and eight assists for Juve last 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 (31 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 or Ciro Immobile, a collection of goalscoring fiends unparalleled in recent years for Italy.

The head coach: Roberto Mancini

As alluded to, Mancini entered 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 — just as they did in Tuesday’s semi-final meeting.

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.

In fact, so impressive has Mancini’s job been so far that the 56-year-old recently signed a new three-year contract with the national team. Mancini says he hopes to “reap the rewards” of the work put in to develop this young generation of talents.

“I am really happy and I thank the President, it’s a great moment,” he said at a press conference.

“We have extended our deal. We will play in many competitions, it won’t be easy to win. We are trying to bring forward the project we have began three years ago.

“There are many young players and we hope we will soon reap the rewards of our work. We’ll need some luck in some moments, we will want to have our say at the Euros.”


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Maurizio Sarri: If Italy win Euro 2020 Jorginho deserves Ballon d’Or recognition

It has been a whirlwind year for Jorginho, who has transformed his perception on the Chelsea terraces by winning the Champions League under Thomas Tuchel and has now masterminded a Euro 2020 final appearance with Italy at Wembley.

The Brazilian-born midfielder netted the winning semi-final penalty against Spain in trademark fashion, with that all too familiar hop, skip and a jump, and his former coach Maurizio Sarri has now backed him to make the shortlist for this year’s Ballon d’Or.

Sarri said: “If he wins the European Championship, he is a candidate for the Ballon d’Or.

“He’s a refined player and that’s why everyone doesn’t understand him.

“He makes everything seem easy, it’s his greatness. When I went to Chelsea, we managed to snatch him from Manchester City.

“At first it was hard to understand him for the fans, the journalists, now I see that he is appreciated. He was also the captain of Chelsea.”

The tactics

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 Immobile leading the line, flanked most often by Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi.

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, though he has faced competition from Marco Verratti in the knockout rounds as the PSG man returns to fitness.

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 Giovanni Di Lorenzo has been an excellent replacement for the injured Alessandro Florenzi at right-back, while Leonardo Spinazzola enjoyed an excellent start to the tournament on the left. His Achilles injury will make him sorely missed for the final, but Emerson Palmieri didn’t look out of place in his absence against Spain.

The current school of Italian football couldn’t be any further away from the last side that took to the field in a major international tournament. Though Chiellini and Bonucci remain, the likes of Graziano Pelle, Stefano Sturaro and Emanuele Giaccherini have seen their international careers come to an end, while legendary centre-back Andrea Barzagli has retired from the game altogether.

The two line-ups together show just how much time and effort has been put into developing this new generation of Italian stars, and the hope will be that they can send out a statement that they mean business this summer.

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: WWWWWWWW

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, before winning each of their six matches at Euro 2020 so far.

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 entered this contest with relatively high odds compared to the favourites.

But Sky Bet are now offering odds of 5/6 for Italy to replicate their 1968 success and win the tournament outright. They are down as favourites to clinch the coveted international silverware, with England (11/8) behind them as second- favourites, though that could change if they beat Denmark (9/1).

The best hope of Italy producing a Golden Boot winner remains with Ciro Immobile, who is priced at 66/1 by Sky Bet, though with just two goals so far, he has a long way to go to catch Cristiano Ronaldo and Patrik Schick on five. He would have to net a hat-trick in the final, which is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.

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