In three years, Italy has gone from failing to qualify for the World Cup to a perfect qualifying campaign for the European Championship.
This is a transformation that came earlier than expected with coach Roberto Mancini, who found the right combination of younger players and veterans to create optimism around a team that had lost all confidence.
“There are teams that are a step above us, but we do not feel inferior to anyone and we want to surprise,” said veteran defender Leonardo Bonucci.
He is currently 26 games unbeaten – the second longest series in the team’s history, following only 30 games from 1935-39 under the leadership of Vittorio Pozzo – Italy has the honor of hosting the opening match of the tournament against Turkey on 11 June in Rome.
Switzerland and Wales are also in Group A with the Azzurri.
WHO TO WATCH
While alternating central striker Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti have to take care of the result, Italy’s strength is the large group of small but highly efficient wings and midfielders.
Left-winger Lorenzo Insine is considered Italy’s most talented player and his lack of use during the failed World Cup qualifier 2018 – especially when he was put on the bench during the play-off loss to Sweden – irritated fans endlessly. On the other wing is Federico Chiesa, the son of former Italy striker Enrico Chiesa, while Federico Bernardeschi remains another strong option in attack.
Then in the midfield there are countless opportunities with Niccolo Barella, Jorgeninho, Manuel Locatelli, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Matteo Pesina – plus Marco Verratti and Stefano Sensei, allowing injuries. Insigne, Verratti, Sensi, Barella and Chiesa on a stand 5 feet-9 (1.75 meters) or under.
Captain Giorgio Chiellini and Bonucci are the only members of the team with over 100 appearances. No other invited player has made even 50 appearances.
Moreover, both Chiellini and Bonucci remain starters in defense, although they now have reliable backups of cancer survivors Francesco Aserbi, Gianluca Mancini and Alessandro Bastoni – who have established themselves in Lazio, Roma and Inter respectively.
Record goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has retired from international football after failing to qualify for the World Cup. He was replaced by 22-year-old Gianluigi Donarmama.
CASES OF COVID
Italy was severely affected by the coronavirus. Mancini had to train games remotely in November when he was quarantined after a positive COVID-19 test, although he was asymptomatic.
Newly-appointed assistant Daniele De Rossi has been hospitalized for more than a month with symptoms of pneumonia after being one of four employees infected with the virus during World Cup qualifiers in March.
Several players have also battled COVID-19, most notably Verratti, which was positive in both January and April. Veratti then injured his right knee in early May, but doctors at the team believe he may return during the tournament.
Apart from Buffon, the biggest name missing is that of Mario Balotelli.
Now 30, the striker who led Italy to the final of Euro 2012 is playing for Monza in Serie B after a series of problems off and off the field. Years away from the national team, Balotelli was called up when Mancini was first hired in 2018, but then lost his way again.
“I was hoping he would feel proud to show that he could go back to the player who showed he could be,” Mancini said. “Unfortunately, Mario did not do much to return to his highest level. And that remains a great disappointment. “
Another key player who is missing is 21-year-old midfielder Niccolo Zaniolo, who tore tendons in both knees from injuries last year and is still recovering.
PROSPECTS OF PROGRESS
The four-time World Cup champion, the only European Championship title in Italy, came in 1968. Although the Azzurri are not among the top favorites this time, they are expected to enter knockout rounds.
However, Mancini believes that Italy could aspire to a title that would provide relief for one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic.
“We want to give the whole nation a reason to celebrate,” Mancini said, “especially given what we’ve been through for the last year and a half.”