Italy’s failure to qualify for the last World Cup was described by the country’s unforgiving press as a ‘national shame without precedent’ and some publications went a step further, referring to the playoff defeat against Sweden as the ‘apocalypse’.
Fast-forward four summers and the Azzurri will be back competing on the tournament stage, this time under the management of Roberto Mancini, an astute tactician who is no stranger to success.
Having taken over in May 2018, he was tasked with picking up the pieces and reinventing the four-time world champions and, based on what he’s delivered thus far, there’s optimism around Italy ahead of Euro 2020. But how far can they go?
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Italy qualified for Euro 2020 in convincing fashion, topping Group J and winning every single one of their ten fixtures. Finland, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Armenia and Liechtenstein made up the rest of the group.
Mancini’s men scored 37 goals along the way, averaging an impressive 3.7 per match, and only conceded on four occasions. Their qualification campaign was as flawless as anybody could realistically hope for and the nature of their progression to the finals went some way in healing the wounds from the 2018 World Cup.
Traditionally when discussing the Azzurri’s strengths, the conversation rarely ventures beyond the defence. In Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy have a top goalkeeper and with the experienced centre back pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci likely to be playing in front of him, they’ll certainly be capable of shutting out even the tournament’s most potent attackers.
However, an area in which they’re particularly blessed going into the tournament is in midfield. Even with Marco Verratti struggling for fitness, Mancini has plenty of quality options at his disposal.
Chelsea‘s Jorginho ended the season in fine form and is likely to operate as the midfield metronome while providing a screen to the back four. Nicolo Barella, a Serie A winner with Inter, comes into the tournament off the back of an outstanding individual campaign. He’s proven himself to be a creative force but has also shown the industry which makes him a complete box-to-box midfielder.
In the event Verratti is unavailable, Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli would be most people’s favourite to come into the side and, based on the season he’s just had, he’d certainly deserve it.
While this Italian side are incredibly functional and structurally sound, you do wonder if they’ll struggle to break down those who take a leaf out of their own book – sit deep and look to soak up pressure with a view to hitting their opponent on the break.
The midfield structure will allow the Azzurri to defend efficiently and control possession, but do any of the aforementioned players have the guile to unlock a stubborn, well-organised defence seeing as none of them are specialist attacking midfielders?
Federico Chiesa was Juventus‘ standout performer during a difficult season for the Bianconeri and he’s certainly one to watch at this summer’s tournament.
Son of cult hero Enrico Chiesa, he stepped up on multiple occasions when Andrea Pirlo’s side needed him most. He managed 15 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, but you could argue the 23-year-old’s versatility is his most impressive trait.
His ability to play anywhere across the front-line including as a false nine, burst of pace and eye for goal make him a constant threat.
Elsewhere, keep an eye on Sassuolo’s Giacomo Raspadori, who was something of a shock inclusion in Mancini’s squad.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan), Alex Meret (Napoli), Salvatore Sirigu (Torino)
Defenders: Francesco Acerbi (Lazio), Alessandro Bastoni (Inter), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Giovanni Di Lorenzo (Napoli), Emerson Palmieri (Chelsea), Alessandro Florenzi (PSG), Leonardo Spinazzola (Roma), Rafael Toloi (Atalanta)
Midfielders: Nicolo Barella (Inter), Bryan Cristante (Roma), Jorginho (Chelsea), Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo), Lorenzo Pellegrini (Roma), Stefano Sensi (Inter), Marco Verratti (PSG)
Forwards: Andrea Belotti (Torino), Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo), Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus), Federico Chiesa (Juventus), Ciro Immobile (Lazio), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Giacomo Raspadori (Sassuolo)
The Azzurri are one of the dark horses for this summer’s competition and will be expected to progress from Group A which includes Switzerland, Turkey and Wales. There is a strong possibility they will be good enough to top the group and if they manage that they’ll face the runner-up from Group C which includes the Netherlands, Austria, North Macedonia and Ukraine.
Taking that into consideration, there is no reason why Mancini’s side can’t progress to at least the quarter-finals. They have a talented group and a proven winner in the former Manchester City boss.
He appears to have found the right blend between experience and youth, making this an incredibly well-balanced squad. Given their quality and the draw, reaching the semi-finals feels like a realistic target for Italy.