The last time we saw the Azzurri on the field attempting to qualify for a major international tournament was back in November 2017 when Italy fell to Sweden 1-0 on aggregate to miss the 2018 World Cup. It was a wake up call for a nation that had become accustomed to being one of Europe’s elite sides. The disaster meant that the entire FIGC hierarchy had to look in the mirror and figure out how to start over.
The task to be tackled was appointing a capable manager to replace the inept Gian Piero Ventura. In stepped Roberto Mancini. The title winning former Inter and Manchester City tactician’s first order of business was to usher in a new generation of Italian footballers. While there have been growing pains since Mancini has taken over, there have been positive signs as the Azzurri look to regain their place among Europe’s top nations.
Italy may only have three wins, four draws, and two losses in Mancini’s nine matches since his appointment, but things seem to be on the upswing. The Italian peninsula looks to be rife with young talent these days and Mancini is unafraid to use it. Gone are the days of Italy’s over-reliance on washed up former greats. In are the days of building around young talents.
Last year’s UEFA Nations League aside, the real business now begins for Italy with the commencement of Euro 2020 qualifying. Italy will have an eye on making noise at Euro 2020, but before that can happen it must first qualify for the tournament. So let’s take a look at the Azzurri’s path to Euro 2020.
Italy were able to avoid any heavyweights in its qualifying group and are the highest ranked team by a fairly wide margin. The Azzurri are currently ranked 18th in the FIFA rankings. The next highest ranked team in the group is Bosnia and Herzegovina at 35. Greece follows them ranking 45th in the world. Finland comes in at 59, Armenia 101, and Liechtenstein 181. With two teams automatically qualifying for the 24 team tournament, Italy will be fancied to be playing at Euro 2020. (There are also 4 playoff spots for the eight best third place finishers.) Truth be told they will also be favored to win this group.
With two teams qualifying out of each group, it would be hard to see Italy, even at its worst, not finish in the automatic qualifier spots. That being said, finishing first in this group is no given. Who could get in the way?
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia is a quality side that is led by some familiar faces for Roma and Serie A fans: Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic. The Balkan side is coming off a successful UEFA Nations League in 2018, where it won a group featuring Austria and Northern Ireland, earning promotion to League A for the next edition of the tournament. Dzeko, who will earn his 100th cap (55 goals) in Bosnia’s next match, is likely in his swansong with his national side. However, he has a penchant for scoring big goals in big games (see his Champions League form for Roma) and would love nothing more than to build upon his reputation by finishing ahead of the Azzurri. Italy host Bosnia in Turin on match day four in June and travel to the Balkans on match day nine in November 2019. It’ll be vital that Italy take care of business at home.
Greece could present an interesting challenge for the Azzurri. The fellow Mediterranean side plays a brand of football that hearkens back to Italy’s former glory days; defense first led by Sokratis Papastathopoulos of Arsenal and Kostas Manolas of Roma. This approach could frustrate an Italian side that has had trouble scoring in recent years. The question for Greece is, where do the goals come from? Only Kostas Mitroglou of Galatasaray has scored double figure goals for his country. The Greeks, like Italy, missed out on World Cup 2018 in the playoff round against eventual finalist Croatia and would love nothing more than to redeem themselves during this qualifying campaign. Italy travel to Athens on match day three in June and host Greece in October of 2019.
The Road to Euro 2020
#Nazionale— Nazionale Italiana (@Vivo_Azzurro) March 15, 2019
Gli #Azzurri convocati dal Ct Roberto #Mancini per le gare contro #Finlandia e #Liechtenstein
➡️ L'articolo: https://t.co/c6pntOZuN4#VivoAzzurro #Italia #EURO2020 #EuropeanQualifiers #ItaliaFinlandia #ItaliaLiechtenstein pic.twitter.com/sGriUaT5gZ
Outside of a few players who are currently out injured like Lorenzo Insigne and Lorenzo Pellegrini, as well as a few others who could compete for places during future international windows, this group should see the bulk of action of the next 21 months.
Leonardo Bonucci- The Veteran
The Juve man has made 85 appearances for Italy and will be expected to lead the Italy back line for at least two more years. Along with fellow Juvetino, Giorgio Chiellini, Bonucci will be expected to provide leadership both on and off the pitch. With Chiellini aging, Bonucci will be the man Mancini relies on game in and game out to lead a young group by example.
Jorghino- The Metronome
After being snubbed time and again by Ventura, Jorginho is finally a national team regular under Mancini. He and Marco Verratti seemed to find a nice balance in their last few Nations League matches together in the midfield. The former Napoli man will be relied on to pull the strings and dictate play from the midfield. His passing will be key in opening up opposing defenses.
Federico Chiesa- Il Figlio d’Arte
Chiesa literally is a ‘child of the art’ being the son of former Italy striker Enrico Chiesa. Federico has blossomed into one of Italy’s finest talents over the last few seasons while plying his trade with Fiorentina, the hub of Italian Renaissance art. If Chiesa continues to develop on his current trajectory, he could lead an Italian football Renaissance.
Gigi Donnarumma- The Next Gigi?
The 20-year-old has developed into one of the top goalies in Serie A and Italy’s undisputed number one. With that distinction he will try to fill the big gloves of the last Gigi; one with the last name Buffon. He seems to have put some of the blunders that marred his reputation in the rear view mirror this season. If he continues to develop, he could become Italy’s next world class keeper.
Where do Roma’s player fit in?
Pellegrini will miss out on the first pair of qualifiers due to a hamstring injury. However, he has been a consistent call up by Mancini. Pellegrini should be an important member of the Italy midfield mix during Euro 2020 qualifying and beyond. He will likely battle players like Nicolò Barella of Cagliari for time in Italy’s three man midfield alongside Jorginho and Verratti.
Florenzi has been a fixture on the Italy roster under Mancini and likely will continue to be one despite his recent struggles with Roma. Right back isn’t Italy’s strongest position, which helps his cause. Additionally, Florenzi can be a bit of a jack of all trades for Mancini, as he is versatile enough to play at fullback, midfield or wide in attack.
Stephan El Shaarawy
It’s been awhile since we’ve seen Il Faraone in azzurro but his current fine form could see him make his first appearance in blue under Mancini. With Insigne out injured, he should be a strong candidate to see minutes on the wing in the first pair of qualifiers. If El Shaarawy can keep up his fine form, he should remain in the wing mix with Chiesa, Insigne, Matteo Politano, and Federico Bernardeschi.
Cristante has been an on again, off again call up so far under Mancini and will likely continue to be one going forward. If Mancini continues to carry six midfielders, the competition will be fierce and Cristante will have to put his best foot forward when he does receive a call. His biggest competition for a place may be his teammates; Pellegrini and Zaniolo.
Speaking of Zaniolo... He has yet to be capped for Italy, but if his Roma form is any indication, he should have a long prosperous national team career. Zaniolo was called up by Mancini in September before he ever made a Serie A appearance and will look to get his first cap in the coming week. If he keeps up his fine form, Zaniolo should be an Italy fixture for a long time.
Who will score the goals?
Italy’s biggest issue since the failed World Cup qualification has been a dearth of goals from its forwards. Striker has been the biggest issue with nobody grabbing the reigns and making the position his own in recent years. Despite bagging plenty of league goals, Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti have yet to find similar success in Azzurro. Perhaps on fire 36- year-old Fabio Quagliarella can provide at least a short term solution for the upcoming qualifiers.
Will Mario Balotelli be given another chance?
Balotelli was last called up in September, after a prior recall by Mancini in May 2018, his first since World Cup 2014. Balotelli’s bad boy attitude stunted what looked like a top class career. However, the 28-year-old has flown under the radar bit since his move to France in 2016. After seasons of 17 and 26 goals for Nice, Balotelli has scored five times since a January move to Marseilles. Mancini is very familiar with Balotelli, having coached him at Inter and City. If he keeps up his fine form and keeps walking the straight and narrow, one wonders if he can’t be the answer for Italy at the #9 position.
Will Alessio Romagnoli be the next great Italian CB?
Over the years, Italy has seen countless world class center backs in its ranks; Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro, and Chiellini just to name a few. With Chiellini and Bonucci both on the wrong side of 30, the Azzurri will need an heir. And that heir looks like it could be Roma youth product Romagnoli, who has become the leader of Milan’s back line. When I chatted with Milan Club Philly founder David Fante, who watches Romagnoli on a weekly basis he gave me this assessment.
Bo-whocci? Romagnoli is the real deal. He’s calm and carries an air of authority that’s essential in a captain. His greatest strength is being a smart, well positioned player, and his presence on the pitch gives me confidence (or at least some relief) that it’s not the defensive side of things I need to worry about during a match. Unless Donnarumma starts dribbling the ball, but that’s another topic of conversation. I don’t go deep into tactics or player qualities, so I can’t call out specific technical weaknesses, but I think he needs to grow and mature a bit more before he’s accepted as a leader of the Azzurri. I’m sure he’s capable now and will only improve over time, but there’s a bias within FIGC that favors older players (for the most part deservedly) in leadership positions.
For my money, I think Romagnoli has what it takes to lead the Italy back line well past Euro 2020. Now to finding him a post-Bonucci partner. Will the real Mattia Caldara and Daniele Rugani please stand up.
Will Roma continue to play a big role in the squad make up?
Roma currently have four players on the Italy roster and a fifth who will be a part of the mix. Under the recently departed leadership, Roma began to build a nice, young Italian core. With new leadership comes new ideas, so only time will tell if the ‘Italianization’ of Roma continues. Current national team player Gianluca Mancini was rumored to be on way to Rome in the summer, but who knows if that deal dies with Monchi’s departure.
Italy seems to be stocked full of young talent and on the upward trajectory under Mancini. In a group like this, qualification should be a formality. Nonetheless, Italy needs to find a consistent goal threat to ensure that they don’t make qualification more difficult than it needs to be and finish top of the table.