It may be hard to believe, but it’s been five years since we’ve seen the Azzurri competing in a major tournament. Never in my time as a calcio fan was it fathomable to imagine the Italian National team not qualifying for either a World Cup or a Euro tournament proper. However, back in 2018, that’s exactly what happened.
Under the leadership of He Who Shall Not Be Named (better known as Gian Piero Ventura), the Azzurri failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. After finishing second in a qualifying group with Spain, the Azzurri lost to Sweden in the ensuing home-and-home qualifier 1-0. It was a shocking result, but maybe one that was necessary for the Azzurri to usher in a new beginning.
That defeat was the end of an era for Italy. After losing to the Swedes, we saw the retirement from international duty of the last remaining links to the 2006 World Cup-winning side: Roma legend Daniele De Rossi, along with Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Barzagli hung up the blue kits of the Azzurri for the last time.
And while some members of the side that fell to Sweden remain important members of the current squad, the majority of the 26 man squad selected by Roberto Mancini for Euro 2020 are fresh faces. With a new crop of young talent incorporated into the side over the last three years, the Azzurri again looks to be on the rise.
With the installment of Roberto Mancini in the role of Azzurri CT, we’ve seen the likes of Nicoló Barella, Federico Chiesa, Manuel Locatelli, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Alessandro Bastoni, Domenico Berardi, Federico Bernardeschi, Sandro Tonali, and Nicoló Zaniolo, among others, worked into the side. And some of them—especially Barella and Chiesa—will have starting roles in the Euro side. Throw in the more prominent roles for players like Gigi Donnarumma and Jorginho and the side has a completely different look.
Since Mancini took over the reins of the Azzurri, the results have been promising. In 31 matches under his guidance, Italy has won 22 matches, drawn seven, and lost only twice. And those two losses came way back in 2018 to France in the build-up to the World Cup and to Portugal in the inaugural Nations League.
The highlight of Mancini's tenure thus far has been the perfect 10-0-0 record in Euro 2020 qualifying and winning a Nations League group that included Holland, Poland, and Bosnia & Herzegovina. With the Azzurri unbeaten for nearly three calendar years, optimism will be high heading into this month’s tournament.
There are some concerns over where the goals will come from for the Azzurri, as Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti haven’t been able to carry their league form for Lazio and Torino into the national side. However, the Azzurri play a much more progressive brand of football these days and no longer look to win matches 1-0 playing catenaccio and counterattacking.
Italy wrapped up Euro qualifying by hammering Armenia 9-1 in November 2019 and followed that impressive output up by beating Moldova 6-0 in a 2020 friendly, and San Marino 7-0 just last week. That’s not to say that the Azzurri aren’t able to play their signature solid defense, as Mancini’s side has only given up more than one goal once during his time in charge in that 3-1 loss to France and have kept 19 clean sheets.
That is a far cry from the Azzurri side that defied the odds under Antonio Conte in 2016. That Italian side was perhaps the least talented seen in quite some time on the peninsula. It was led from the back by the likes of Buffon, Bonnucci, Chiellini, Barzagli, and De Rossi. Meanwhile, the rest of the squad was a smorgasbord of complementary role players that performed greater as a collective than their individual talents would lead one to expect.
In the opening group stage match, the Azzurri shocked one of the tournament’s favorites, Belgium, with goals from Graziano Pellè and Emanuele Giaccherini. Then Eder scored an 88th-minute winner against Sweden to clinch advancement. Italy fell to Ireland in the last group stage match, setting up a round of 16 match against Spain.
Certainly, that seemed like the end of Italy’s run. But, it wasn’t. Conte masterminded the perfect game plan that saw the Azzurri stifle Spain’s vaunted attack, while Chiellini (33’) and Pellè (91’) providing the goals. Yet another 2-0 win over a favored side meant the underdog Azzurri had to be taken seriously.
Italy’s luck finally ran out in the quarterfinals in a match that nearly went its way. Against the defending world champion Germans, a powerhouse side, the Azzurri took it the distance. Second-half goals from Mesut Özil and Leonardo Bonucci sent the game to extra time where Italy’s luck ran out in a nine-round penalty shoot-out that went to the Germans 6-5.
This year’s incarnation will be expected to at least match the 2016 side’s quarterfinal accomplishment. Anything less will likely be deemed a disappointment from a more talented side. Historically though, Italy has had less success in the Euros than World Cup.
The Azzurri have won the Euros only once, back in 1968, and twice fallen in the final in 2000 and 2012. Only time will tell if this Italian side has the talent to make a deep run in a tournament featuring 2018 World Cup champions France, as well as semi-finalists England and Belgium, who lead the betting odds. No matter the result though, this tournament will likely be an important building block for a side with an eye on World Cup 2022.