Euro 2020 qualifiers: Roberto Mancini's Italy revolution showing green shoots of revival
The Italy manager can equal a long-standing national team record with a ninth-straight win against minnows Liechtenstein
Italy wore an olive green strip in Rome at the weekend. It was an unusual look for a team who go by the nickname Azzurri - blues - but a far better one than the red-faced embarrassment they wore in Milan 23 months ago, when, held at home by Sweden in the second leg of a play-off, they became the first Italian team in 60 years not to reach a World Cup.
The all-green strip has its critics but, as of Saturday, it also has fans. Replicas have apparently sold out since a wholly refashioned Italy confirmed their place at the finals of Euro 2020 with a 2-0 win over Greece, qualifying with three matches to spare. The new strip - not a permanent change - has been handy for headline-writers, ‘Green Light for the Euros!’, and for anyone in search of a neat symbol for youthful, fertile renewal.
In truth, Italy lived dangerously at times against Greece and have been helped out by strokes of luck against the likes of Armenia and Finland in previous games. But those details, having been noted by manager Roberto Mancini, are not going to dampen the relief and the optimism generated by a run of seven successive wins in qualifying.
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Add the friendly victory of last November against the USA, and Mancini’s Azzurri have now accumulated eight victories on the trot. If they beat Liechtenstein, who are bottom of Group J, Mancini will match a long-standing record. Only Vittorio Pozzo has ever coached the national team to nine wins in succession. Pozzo was the manager who oversaw the first two of Italy’s four World Cup triumphs, in the 1930s.
Mancini brushes off the comparison, but, amid the celebrations, spoke of a proud tradition restored. Finishing above Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Armenia and Greece in a qualifying pool might be regarded as a mundane achievement, but the scars left by Italy’s creaky, stagnant performances in the fateful World Cup play-offs of 2017 are deep. Mancini described the return to football’s top table as "a revival”.
It had, he said, been “built on young talent, passion and trust. Italy has always produced good players, but the fact is that at the moment, in our league, players eligible for Italy make up only 34 per cent [of a typical Serie A matchday]. The good ones are getting younger and younger.”
Mancini, who replaced the sacked architect of the Sweden humiliation, Gian Piero Ventura, in May 2018, has fast-tracked a number of up-and-comings. Nicolo Zaniolo, of Roma, was called up 13 months ago, before he had played a Serie A match; Moise Kean, now of Everton, was scoring his first senior goals for Italy after only a handful of games for his then club Juventus. Zaniolo, 20, and Kean, 19, have had their ups and downs in the past 12 months - both were disciplined for poor time-keeping while with the Under 21s - but they are emblematic of the direction Mancini wants his Italy to head.
Of the players who triumphed over Greece at the weekend, only six have been with Italy to a major tournament before. Where Ventura had relied on grizzled, and admired, veterans, some of whom, like Gigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi, had won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, his successor was obliged to refresh his squad.
Mancini, who guided Manchester City to the Premier League title in 2012, having led Inter Milan to Serie A titles, has always aspired to coach the national team. His enthusiasm is plain, although he appears a mellower Mancini than the charged, sometimes spiky figure of his City era.
“He has created a family spirit,” said Leo Bonucci, the Italy captain. “The important thing has been to get to know the players, and make sure they feel integrated,” said Mancini.
His Italy, he believes “are not far behind the leading teams”, at eight months’ distance from Euro 2020. They are not a squad full of superstars - Jorginho, the Brazil-born Chelsea midfielder, is the leading scorer from Mancini’s 16 games in charge - and the emergence of a dynamic centre-forward would be a blessing. Mancini has made no secret of the fact he would welcome good reasons to re-audition Mario Balotelli, ex of Mancini’s Inter and his City, and currently settling in at his latest club, Brescia, for the role. A lean, precocious Super Mario played some of his best football in Italy’s blue, two European Championships ago. A lean, matured Balotelli might suit the green revolution.
Updated: October 15, 2019 08:56 AM