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Could Italy be the dark horses of Euro 2020?

Il Messaggero called it a “national shame”. The Corriere della Sera lamented a “historic blunder”. This, wrote La Gazzetta dello Sport, was the “apocalypse”. Italy have come a long way since their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, which was confirmed with a play-off defeat by Sweden less than four years ago. The Azzurri have swiftly put that debacle behind them and are now being tipped by some as potential dark horses to win Euro 2020, so could Italy bounce back?

Opinion was divided on the reasons for Italy’s inability to make it to Russia. Many pointed the finger at the manager Gian Piero Ventura, a respectable mid-table Serie A coach who was woefully out of his depth at international level.

Others blamed the Italian Football Federation for its naïve approach to the FIFA World Rankings, which saw the four-time world champions placed among the second seeds for the qualifying draw, while the likes of Wales and Romania were sent to Pot One.

Some fans felt the problem ran deeper. For the first leg of the play-off loss to Sweden, Italy’s starting XI featured just four players under the age of 30. There was, according to these supporters, a dearth of young talent coming through, while Italy had also fallen behind tactically. Ventura had patently performed poorly, they argued, but Italy’s problems did not start and finish with the manager.

It is increasingly difficult to stand by that assessment four years on. With the benefit of hindsight, it really does look like Ventura was overwhelmingly the main reason why Italy missed out on the World Cup for the first time since 1958 and hopes are now returning with Euro 2020 imminent.

Roberto Mancini, appointed as Ventura’s replacement in 2018, has brought the feel-good factor back to the national team. Italy won all 10 of their qualifying matches for Euro 2020. Belgium, one of the favourites to lift the trophy, were the only other team to do so.

Mancini has given the Azzurri a more modern identity and brought the average age of the side down significantly. Italy will line up in a 4-3-3 formation this summer. They will build play from the back, press high up the pitch and look to control possession with a technically gifted midfield trio. This, of course, is not a recipe for success in itself, but it does suggest that Italian football has caught up with long-established trends across the continent.

That aforementioned midfield, comprised of Jorginho, Nicola Barella and Marco Verratti, is one of the most technically gifted in the tournament. Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa offer a genuine threat from the flanks, something that Italy have not always been able to call upon. The veteran duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are still going strong at centre-back, and have a telepathic understanding based on years of service together at Juventus.

There are two main areas of concern. In general terms, several players in the squad lack experience at the highest level. This goes to show how comprehensive Mancini’s reforms have been, but it could be an adverse factor if Italy make it through to the latter stages of the competition.

The other doubt is up front, where Ciro Immobile looks set to get the nod ahead of Andrea Belotti. Immobile has been fantastic in the last two seasons at Lazio, but he has never really convinced for the national team. Thirteen goals in 46 caps is a mediocre record at best, and Italy will need him to bring his Lazio shooting boots along if they are to go far into Euro 2020.

Group A is perhaps the most open of Euro 2020, with Wales, Switzerland and Turkey each having designs on a place in the knockout phase. Italy will therefore be tested from the get-go, but it would still be a huge surprise if they failed to secure a top-two finish. The Azzurri have come a long way since the apocalypse.

 


 

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