If England’s rise from the pits of a Euro 2016 defeat to Iceland to the final of Euro 2020 is impressive, then Italy’s redemption arc is a whole other world.
The nation was in mourning only four years ago, when Gian Piero Ventura’s era ended with the most humiliating failure to qualify for World Cup 2018, having blanked against Sweden over the course of 180 minutes.
The game ended in chaos, when Daniele De Rossi refused to be substituted onto the pitch, making it very clear that he believed the attack-minded Lorenzo Insigne should be deployed, given their desperate pursuit of an equaliser over the two legs.
De Rossi’s status as a national treasure was enhanced, but it did nothing to change the outcome of the match.
For Italy, it was as bad as it gets.
In search of inspiration and a new direction, the FIGC turned to Roberto Mancini as the man to usher in a bold new era for the Azzurri.
Much like England’s appointment of Southgate, Mancini had one major job on his hands: force the nation to fall back in love with international football. For many, the international break is a nuisance, robbing them of the week in, week out drama of the Premier League or Serie A.
That attitude had to be changed, and that could only happen through winning matches, and giving supporters a team that were not only proud to get behind once every few months, but to follow during the domestic season.
It’s fair to say, there was a whole lot of turnover needed in that squad back in 2017, due to the number of ageing or generally average players knocking around. The likes of Manolo Gabbiadini, Marco Parolo or Antonio Candreva wouldn’t get near the new generation of Italy players, for example, yet they started Italy’s win-or-bust clash with Sweden at San Siro.
The elderly Gianluigi Buffon, Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Barzagli also had to be replaced, meaning a revolution on the pitch was desperately needed, as well as one behind the scenes. There were some easy fixes for Mancini to make, however.
Lorenzo Insigne and Jorginho, whom Ventura couldn’t fit into his cunning ‘plan’, were quickly reintroduced into the starting lineup, and the team soon became built around the duo, given their talent and importance to the system.
There’s no such thing as a magic fix or new manager bounce in international football, however. Real plans had to be put in place to transform Italy into the force it once was, and that started with diving into their pool of exciting youth stars.
The likes of Nicolo Barella, Gianluigi Donnarumma, and Federico Chiesa have become key components during Mancini’s reign, while Nicolo Zaniolo and Moise Kean were handed their opportunities, although injury and poor form has left them out of the reckoning.
It’s not all about youth, though.
It’s Mancini’s incredible ability to blend youth and experience that has helped to conjure a winning formula, relying heavily on the evergreen Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci to lead from the back.
The midfield’s core of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Barella is as intimidating as it gets, and in Chiesa, Insigne and Ciro Immobile, there are goals aplenty in attack.
Even with all this talent, however, the players still need a leader to follow.
Mancini is that beacon of light for his nation. He is calm and composed on the touchline, devilishly stylish and an inspirational figure to draw from.
He also recruited his backroom staff intelligently, bringing back the incredibly popular De Rossi and Gianluca Vialli to give the players a lift.
He proved during his time at Manchester City that he boasts plenty of tactical awareness, and he has been able to harness that club atmosphere and replicate it on the international stage.
The Italians look like a group of players who have worked together for years, and their performances on the pitch back that theory. Italy dazzled the tournament in the group stages, winning all three games by an aggregate score of 7-0.
They have been forced to dig deep in the knockout rounds, edging past Austria, Belgium and Spain to reach the grand final. It’s not been vintage football in the last three matches, but no one can question whether they deserve to be here.
During the European Championship, they have broken a series of world and national records, showing just how capable this group truly is. Gianluigi Donnarumma was largely responsible for Italy breaking the world record for the most minutes played without conceding a goal (1,168 minutes) and they added to a national record of 33 games unbeaten, which they can extend on Sunday.
Italy are one of the two best teams in the competition this year, and along with Luis Enrique, they boast one of the two best coaches, too. If they beat England to win Euro 2020, it will signal the perfect reward for what has been a remarkable journey under Mancini, and one that has still to reach its end.
Europe and the rest of the world had better watch out: Italy and Mancini have stumbled upon the secret recipe for endless success.