Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

Mamma mia! Millennials Moise Kean and Nicolo Zaniolo lifting Italy's mood at Euro 2020 qualifiers

Road to European Championships begins momentum unlikely to be derailed by Tuesday’s meeting with Liechtenstein

Youngsters Moise Kean, left, and Nicolo Zaniolo hold much promise as Italian internationals. Claudio Villa / Getty Images
Youngsters Moise Kean, left, and Nicolo Zaniolo hold much promise as Italian internationals. Claudio Villa / Getty Images

A weekend for proud parents in Italy. The mother of Nicolo Zaniolo was moved to tears on seeing her son make his debut for the senior national team.

The apple of her eye is so young he has yet to get a driving licence. Mum, Francesca Costa, gives him a lift to practice at Roma.

Isabelle Kean, meanwhile, happily told various media a little more about her youngest, Moise Kean, who marked his competitive debut for Italy with a goal, the smoothly struck second in the 2-0 win against Finland in Udine.

She spoke warmly of her son’s great drive, how she still regards him as a "miracle", a late addition to the family when she imagined she would not be having more children.

Mamma mia!, as they (sometimes) say in Italy. Around the peninsula, the impact of these millennials – Zaniolo turns 20 in July, Kean was 19 last month – has generated both pride and relief.

Last year, the Azzurri, four times world champions, suffered their greatest humiliation in 60 years by failing to reach a World Cup. The road to the next tournament, Euro 2020, has now begun with genuine optimism, and a momentum unlikely to be derailed by Tuesday night’s meeting with Liechtenstein.

The injection of youth has much to do with that, as does the fact that Italy managed to score more than a single goal in a match for the first time in nine fixtures. If the opening goal against the Finns had some fortune about it, a pronounced deflection, that was not going to reduce the delight of the scorer, Nicolo Barella, the Cagliari midfielder.

He is also fresh to the international scene. Barella is 22, this was his fifth cap, and his first Azzurri goal.

Kean then produced his firm but composed finish, running onto a through-ball with 16 minutes left, to cap a dynamic performance by the striker, who had played a mere two minutes of Serie A football this season for his club, Juventus, until this month.

But he is a precocious young man around whom both club and country have carefully scheduled plans.

Juve identified Kean, whose parents came to Italy from Ivory Coast nearly 30 years ago, as a desirable talent when he was 14, whisking him away from neighbours Torino. Juve may yet see him first as an investment, with a rapidly rising transfer value, more than a long-term leader of their line, but he has come into his 20th year with a bang.

He started for Juve at Udinese two weeks ago, scored twice and set up another goal in a 4-1 win. He may not be about to take Cristiano Ronaldo’s place in Juventus starting XI but he can expect to play a more prominent part in the canter to the league title and, perhaps, in the Uefa Champions League.

Italy manager Roberto Mancini has a developed view of how Kean fits in for Italy.

“I see him as a central striker, although with his speed he can work on either flank for two or three years,” Mancini says. “He gives us depth, and I put him in against Finland because of what he showed in training.

"I am really pleased with him and all the young players.”

Italy manager Roberto Mancini has a plan for the youth in his team to evolve into complete players. Claudio Villa / Getty Images
Italy manager Roberto Mancini has a plan for the youth in his team to evolve into complete players. Claudio Villa / Getty Images

Mancini looks forward to seeing more of Zaniolo in the blue of Italy. His late introduction against Finland was reward for his progress with Roma this year.

He only made his Serie A debut this season, following a summer move south from Inter Milan in the summer; he made his first big headlines with two goals against Porto in the first leg of Roma’s last-16 tie against Porto in the Champions League.

Zaniolo and Kean were both part of the Italy team who finished as runners-up at last July’s European Under 19 championship. They became good friends, and have been rooming together over the past week with the seniors.

“I told him he’d score,” Zaniolo reports of their conversation ahead of kick-off on Saturday.

Both their mothers had a good feeling about the night, too.

Updated: March 26, 2019 10:43 AM

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