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Federico Chiesa leading resurgence of Italian football

How have Italy turned into an international superpower again all of a sudden? It was in November 2017 when Italian football reached its nadir, as Sweden celebrated with unbridled joy and disbelief at Milan’s San Siro.

The Azzurri were too toothless for the World Cup, they hadn’t scored over two legs and failed to reach the showpiece event for just the second time. What struck you about them was just how blunt they were in attack.

It became a tired stereotype that Italian football was defensive. From the supreme sturdiness and organisation of Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, ironically one of the most progressive teams ever seen going forward in the late 1980s, to the national team’s wall-like base at the 2006 World Cup, it was always seen as a compliment, a badge of honour and evidence of universal respect. Italy were a team who could afford to let players like Roberto Baggio, Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero express themselves because of that initial solidity.

As time went on and those players retired, not to be suitably replaced, the narrative turned to one of mockery and dismissiveness. Italian football stopped being admired and started becoming accused. It was boring, it was slow and it soon lost the wonder that attracted the world to Serie A at its height over 20 years ago.

All that culminated on that dark evening, when the Swedish trap door remained shut, hardly bombarded by any sort of real threat. After years of drifting since winning the World Cup – with the exception of an appearance in the most one-sided international final in modern times, Spain’s victory at Euro 2012 — Italy reached their lowest ebb. But not four years later, they crowned their rebirth with a record-breaking winning run and victory at Euro 2020 under Roberto Mancini.

It was down, in part, to his embracing of risk and changing the age old perception by playing openly but like Gareth Southgate and England, the beaten finalists, he put faith into an emerging new generation of quality.

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The defensive strength of Italian football has never died. They are masters of the art, sometimes the dark art, as Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci can testify. However, they are back because they look a threat again.

In midfield, they are energetic, dominating and creative. Jorginho dictates the pace of a game from deep and Marco Verratti, when fit, supplies the bullets but the star-turn is Federico Chiesa, the Juventus forward and son of the legendary Enrico. Of the new golden age, he is the shiniest, most hope-inspiring jewel, because he adds another dimension in attack. Both Chiesa and Verratti proved their worth in the Champions League this week.

Verratti came back from injury and was the driving force for Paris Saint-Germain in their victory over Manchester City. There was no build up, no settling in period and no warm up games. He returned and stole the show, leaving Pep Guardiola gushing in his post-match press conference.

“I’m in love. He’s an exceptional player,” he said. “When he’s under pressure he can play the extra pass. I know about his character, his personality. I’m happy that he’s back from injury. You can always count on him for build-up play. In the first half, we were a bit soft with him.”

It wasn’t just about his ability to keep the ball, but the way he used it. City dominated possession but none of the pitch were more effective than Verratti, pushing the ball forward with ease when afforded the opportunity and, as Guardiola alluded to, the way he made the right decision almost every time under pressure. It was a masterclass. He missed the Euros but the Italian will step back into the international football fold seamlessly, just as he did in this most intense of situations.

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Chiesa has been the difference for Juventus in so many games. Euro 2020 was a real breakout tournament for the 23-year-old and he only gets more consistent with time. His goal was enough to beat Chelsea but the key lay in the tactical flexibility he afforded Max Allegri.

In Del Piero, Totti and Baggio, Italian football has been spoilt by great number 10s, players who can play a deep role up front. Chiesa is not built in the same mould but he is perfect for the modern age, as position begin to merge. He can play out wide and is a superb weapon on the counter attack with his pace but it was interesting to see him playing more centrally against Thomas Tuchel’s side this week. He went up against 37-year-old centre back Thiago Silva and thrived.

Juventus bought Cristiano Ronaldo in order to win the Champions League. They let him leave to achieve balance in their squad and on their wage bill. It has been a tough start to the season but the Old Lady will hope beating Chelsea can represent a real turning point. It could be symbolic of a new focus.

With Ronaldo gone, there is a need for more collective responsibility but Chiesa is showing that he can become a talismanic figure, too. Watching the likes of him and Verratti in full swing, it is not hard to understand just how Italian football has propelled itself back to the top again.

 


 

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