It was never going to be easy, but the Azzurri persevered through a rough start in Armenia to escape Eastern Europe with three more points in Euro 2020 qualifying. After Armenia struck first on the counter, Italy had to claw it’s way back against a dangerous side. Andrea Belotti was the star on the day. The Torino man opened the scoring and later got Italy’s third (later changed to an own goal). Those goals sandwiched Lorenzo Pellergini’s winner when the Roma man scored off the bench in the 77th minute. Former Roma man Emerson Palmieri also had a strong match providing an assist for Belotti and playing a strong defensive game at left back.
With the win in Armenia, the Azzurri remain a perfect five for five in Euro 2020 qualifying and remain atop the Group J table. However, despite the perfect record Italy’s position isn’t as comfortable as one would think. That’s because Sunday’s opponent, Finland, is only three points behind on 12 points. With qualifying halfway completed, the Fins have unexpectedly become the biggest threat to the Azzurri in a group that features under-performers Greece and Bosnia.
The Azzurri beat Finland 2-0 back on match day one in Udine. The Fins proved to be a tough out on that day, despite Nicolò Barella giving Italy an early lead within 10 minutes. Finland held the Azzurri to just 56% possession and three shots on target. It wasn’t until the 74th minute that Mancini’s men were able to kill off the match through youngster Moise Kean.
86% - Italy have won 12 of 14 matches against Finland (86%): a record in percentage among teams faced at least 10 times. Steamroller.#FinlandItaly #EURO2020— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) September 7, 2019
Those two goals are the only ones that Finland has allowed in Euro qualifying. Since losing to Italy in it’s opening match, Finland has shut out the other four teams in Group J defeating Armenia, Liechtenstein, and Bosnia 2-0, before defeating Greece on Thursday 1-0. The Azzurri will again have to break down that stout Finnish defense if they expect to leave Tampere with three more points.
Mancini acknowledge that this one won’t be easy:
For now, this is certainly the most difficult match and it comes at a delicate time because we’re at the start of the season. Finland are doing really well in the group, they deserve to be second and they have the possibility of qualifying.
They’ve never conceded here and they’re a compact side. It will be a very tough game, difficult match but we’ve come here to win.
Finland vs. Italy: September 8th. 20:45 CET/2:45 EDT. Tampere Stadion, Tampere, Finland.
With two matches in four days, expect some changes in Roberto Mancini’s starting XI for this one. The CT admitted that there could be as many as four-five changes with a need for fresh players. The defense is expected to see at least one change—Gianluigi Donnarumma will again start in goal for the Azzurri. In front of him from left to right in the four-man backline will be Emerson, Leo Bonucci, Alessio Romagnoli, with Armando Izzo replacing Alessandro Florenzi. However, there’s a chance Francesco Acerbi gets the nod over Romagnoli.
Mancini wasn't concerned with the way his defense performed Thursday despite allowing Armenia some chances on the counter saying, “We didn’t give much up, just a couple of counterattacks. When you haven’t played for a few months, there can be mistakes with positioning.”
The midfield will see the most turnover from the Armenia match. Marco Verratti will miss out due to yellow card suspension and Stefano Sensi has been confirmed as his replacement. Nicolò Barella is expected to be benched for this one with Pellegrini replacing him. Meanwhile, Jorghino will retain his spot.
The attack will again be led by Belotti. Federico Chiesa looks to have secured another start on the right wing. However, despite a solid performance Federico Bernardeschi will likely be replaced by Stephan El Shaarawy on the opposite wing.
Probable Formations (according to Corriere dello Sport)
FINLAND (4-4-2): Hradecky; Raitala, Toivio, Arajuuri, Uronen; Lod, Kauko, Kamara, Soiri; Pukki, Tuominen. Manager: Kanerva.
ITALIA (4-3-3): Donnarumma; Izzo, Bonucci, Romagnoli, Emerson Palmieri; Sensi, Jorginho, Pellegrini; El Shaarawy, Immobile, Chiesa. Manager: Mancini.