Euro 2020 qualifiers: Roberto Mancini steers Italy back on course but still searching for a reliable goalscorer
The Azzurri have won five out of five in their Euro 2022 qualifiers under their new manager
With five wins from five and an average of over three goals per game, the Italy of Roberto Mancini have wind in their sails on the way to Euro 2020.
Avoid setback in Tampere, Finland, on Sunday against their closest rivals to top qualifying Group J, and the manager will have completed a year without defeat.
Granted, when the main business agenda of that 12 months includes fixtures against Liechtenstein and Armenia, whom Italy beat 3-1 on Thursday, and, since last November, no opponents who took part at the last World Cup, that would be a modest milestone. But still a morale-boosting one.
The Azzurri, as no Italian needs reminding, did not take part at the last World Cup either and Mancini, appointed last year, is still treating a patient he found in a perilous condition.
Nor is he blind to signs that Italy, beaten 1-0 by Sweden over two legs in their play-off for Russia 2018, remain on edge.
In their last two qualifiers, at home to Bosnia and in Armenia, they fell behind before launching a comeback. They did it against ten men last Thursday, although Mancini’s observation after a gritty win in Yerevan was that Armenia became harder to break down once Alexander Karapetyan had been dismissed for a second yellow card in first-half stoppage time, the dismissed Armenian grumbling that Leo Bonucci had feigned an elbow to his face to get him sent off.
Bonucci can expect more robust duels in Finland, up against perhaps the form striker in Europe. Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki scored his fourth goal from his last three internationals in the 1-0 win over Greece, continuing a remarkable run that has yielded five in the 29-year-old’s first four outings in the English Premier League. Pukki was top marksman in the Championship last season, with 29.
What wouldn't Mancini give for such a sure-fire centre-forward? For all Italy’s uplift since the barren exertions of their doomed World Cup qualifying campaign, the new manager’s search for a trusted, bankable spearhead has ranged widely, across disparate candidates, without yet revealing clearly a number nine to galvanise the Azzurri revival.
In the course of 2019, Mancini has called up an ageing veteran, 36-year-old Fabio Quagliarella; he has promoted a teenager, Moise Kean, 19. And he has hinted, intriguingly, that in his plans there will always be a special place for one of the more challenging footballers he has ever worked with: Mario Balotelli.
Last year, Mancini recalled Balotelli after the player had been absent from national squads since 2014. The return was short-lived. Balotelli won his last Italy cap 12 months ago and has changed club twice since, the zig-zag path that carried him from Internazionale, where he first came to Mancini’s attention, to Mancini’s Manchester City, to AC Milan, Liverpool, Nice and Marseille now placing him at Brescia.
There, Balotelli, 29, must serve a suspension left over from his time in France before he makes his Brescia debut. Mancini will be keeping a beady eye on it.
Ahead of the Armenia match, Mancini said: "I hope he can see returning to his hometown as an opportunity to totally relaunch his career. He is 29-years-old and should be at his peak.
"If Mario scores 25 goals, presses opponents, works with the team and does everything that a 29-year-old should do, then I think he could have a chance for Italy. However, it's important for him that he has a big season."
In the meantime, perhaps the strongest claim to the Azzurri central striker’s role is being staked by Andrea Belotti, the Torino striker who struck the equaliser in Armenia. He appears marginally ahead of Lazio’s Ciro Immobile in Mancini’s evaluation, although even Belotti acknowledged, ahead of the Finland trip, that Italy had “been missing too many chances in front of goal, me included”.
So far in qualifying for the European championship, the goals have been spread around, with a pair for Lorenzo Insigne, the Napoli winger – currently injured – and the combative Paris Saint-Germain midfielder, Marco Verratti, whose yellow card card against Armenia leaves him suspended today.
Besides those, the top scorer in 2019 is 19-year-old Kean, whose electric displays for Juventus at the turn of the year thrust him into Mancini’s reckoning and who has scored twice in his first three Italy matches.
Kean is feeling his way into a new club, Everton. He only made his first start in the Premier League last weekend – in the same fixture as former AC Milan striker Patrick Cutrone, 21 and owner of an Italy cap, made his first league start for Wolverhampton Wanderers. Both are on Mancini’s radar, and know there is an opportunity to seize.
Updated: September 8, 2019 08:14 AM