The Euro 2020 group stage couldn’t have gone much better for the Italian National Team. As the new generation of Italian talent ushers in a new era for the Azzurri, it has been a tournament of record-setting thus far. Roberto Mancini’s men are not only surviving but thriving in their first major tournament together.
The Azzurri are one of only three teams in the tournament to win all three of their group stage matches (along with Belgium and Holland) and are the first team ever at the Euros to sweep the group stage without conceding a goal. Meanwhile, heading into this tournament, Italy had never scored three goals in a Euro match. That all changed when Mancini’s men started the tournament with back-to-back 3-0 wins over Turkey and Switzerland.
Additionally, Italy is now unbeaten in 30 straight matches under the guidance of Mancini—equaling the longest streak in Azzurri history from 1935-39 under Vittorio Pozzo. And the 1-0 shutout over Wales on Sunday was the eleventh straight clean sheet recorded by Italy, which puts them 90 minutes away from breaking the nation’s all-time record.
It’s all impressive stuff, but critics of the Azzurri will say they haven’t been tested by a true European heavyweight yet. And while that may be the case, you have to beat the teams put in front of you, and Italy has done that in impressive fashion.
Italy vs. Austria: June 26th. 21:00 CET/3:00 EDT. Wembley Stadium, London.
Italy again won’t face a traditional European power when it squares off against its northeastern neighbor, Austria, in the Round of 16. The Austrians don’t have much recent success to speak of. In fact, this is the first time that Unsere Burschen has advanced to the Euro knockout rounds. However, that doesn’t make this incarnation of Austria any less of a threat to Italy’s goal of a deep knockout round run.
The Austrians finished second in a group that included the Netherlands, Ukraine, and North Macedonia. Austria opened the group stage with a late 3-1 victory of the Macedonians, who made life difficult for Austria despite being out-possessed 2 to 1. Eventually, Michael Gregoritsch unlocked the 1-1 deadlock in the 78th minute and Marko Arnautovic sealed the deal in the 89th.
In the following match, Austria out-possessed the Dutch 54/46% but only managed one shot on target in a 2-0 loss. Perhaps, even more impressive than the fairly dominant victory over North Macedonia was the 1-0 victory over Ukraine to close out the group. The victory over one of the tournament dark horses assured Austria of their spot in the Round of 16. In a match where possession was virtually an even split, a 21st-minute goal from Cristoph Baumgartner was all that was needed, as Austria held the Ukrainians to one shot on target.
There isn’t much recent history between Italy and Austria, as they last met in a friendly back in 2008 that ended 2-2. However, in tournament play, Italy has beaten Austria all four times that they’ve been drawn together—the last time being a 2-1 victory at the 1998 World Cup.
Ahead of their fifth-ever major tournament meeting, let’s check out some of the keys for Italy making it a perfect 5/5.
Keep An Eye On
Italy’s Midfield Selection
Roberto Mancini has a problem. Though it’s not what you may expect. His problem is one many managers would love to have. Italy boasts a boatload of talent in the midfield, but he must choose three men to patrol the center of the pitch against Austria.
Mancini will have to decide which three out of Jorginho, Nicolo Barella, Marco Verratti, and Manuel Locatelli to start. Jorginho, who serves as Italy’s metronome seems to be the lock to start. Meanwhile, Barella is the box-to-box do it all man for the Azzurri, which makes one think that it’ll be tough for Mancini to sit him.
That leaves Verratti and Locatelli. Verratti was injured to start the tournament, which gave Locatelli his chance to shine. And Locatelli certainly seized on his opportunity by scoring a brace in the Azzurri’s dominant victory over Switzerland. Then Verratti returned to fitness against Wales and showed that he was no worse for wear—bossing the midfield with his 136 touches and assisting Matteo Pessina’s goal.
It’ll be a tough decision for Mancini. Does he go to his tried and true man in Verratti or the young, up and comer in Locatelli? I’d lean toward Verratti after his superb performance on Sunday. The veteran midfielder boasts plenty of big match experience with PSG. Either way, Mancini will have a weapon on his bench in whichever doesn’t start.
Which midfield trio should Mancini start?
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How Does Austria Line Up?
In their first two matches, the Austrians lined up in with a three-man backline in a 3-1-4-2 setup. In both matches, Austria controlled possession but conceded goals. For the last group stage match against Ukraine, Franco Foda adjusted his formation. The Austrians came out in a 4-2-3-1 to combat Ukraine’s 4-3-3.
In the match, Austria controlled less possession (49%) compared to 54% against the Netherlands and 67% against North Macedonia. However, despite controlling less possession against Ukraine, they held their opponents to just 5 shots (1 on target), as opposed to 14 (4) against the Dutch and 7 (2) against the North Macedonians.
Considering the success of the 4-2-3-1 against Ukraine’s 4-3-3, one would expect to see the same against Italy’s 4-3-3. Another advantage besides the better defensive numbers for Austria is the fact that it allows the side’s most creative player, Marcel Sabitzer of RB Leipzig to play more centrally. It also allows David Alaba of Bayern Munich to play at left-back where he can get forward more often than in a back three.
Ukraine is a side with some nice attacking and midfield talents, like Atalanta’s Ruslan Malinovsky and Man City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko. However, against the Azzurri, Austria’s double pivot will be tasked with trying to stop an elite midfield trio. Let the chess match begin between Foda and Mancini.
Can Ciro Keep Scoring?
Coming into this tournament we knew that Italy boasted a glut of talent in the midfield, a sturdy veteran defense, one of Europ’s top keepers, and pacy, talented wingers. However, what we weren’t sure of was if the strikers could live up to their league form, especially Ciro Immobile.
Immobile has absolutely terrorized Serie A defenses since his move to Lazio five seasons ago with 123 goals to his name. However, the most prolific Italian striker of his generation has been far from clinical while playing for his national team. Immobile entered the tournament with just 13 goals in 46 appearances; a far cry from his club output.
His lack of scoring for his country led some to argue that youngster Giacomo Raspadori should be given a chance to lead the line at Euro 2020. However, thus far, Immobile has lived up to his Lazio form with two goals in two matches. If he can continue to score at this rate the Azzurri will be tough to beat. A goal against the Austrians could be enough for Italy to progress and build Immobile’s confidence just a bit more before the Azzurri potentially square off against heavyweights Belgium in the quarterfinals.