After the dark days of Italy’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, Roberto Mancini’s side face Turkey in the European Championship curtain-raiser on Friday as one of the favorites ahead of the tournament .
The Azzurri enter the competition in Rome following a 27-game unbeaten streak after making a remarkable turnaround under former Manchester City boss.
Tears, international retirements, resignations and widespread condemnation accompanied their failure reach a World Cup final for the first time in 60 years.
BBC Sport examines how a nation at its lowest level in football and a manager at a crossroads restored pride, forged a new identity and rediscovered a winning mix ahead of their first home tournament game since the 1990 World Cup.
“Italy needed Mancini and he needed Italy”
Italy’s leading sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport called the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign “an end” and Corriere dello Sport’s title compared it to “the Apocalypse”.
But six months after former boss Gian Piero Ventura left and with the Azzurri still seemingly in limbo, Mancini stepped forward.
56 year old man came to the rescue After stints at Galatasaray and Zenit St. Petersburg, a disappointing return to Inter Milan has been booked.
“It looked like he was on a failed managerial tour and his time as a leader at the top of the game was over. But Italy needed Mancini and he needed Italy,” he said. ‘European writer James Horncastle.
It turned out to be a watershed moment and provided a wave of optimism.
“When he was appointed Italy’s national coach there was a lot of euphoria in the country he was taking over because he is very well respected in the game,” the former midfielder told BBC Sport. Italy and Chelsea, Roberto Di Matteo.
“He is a legend in Italy. I think there was never any doubt about his qualities as a manager or his training.”
His reign began with a quiet 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia, followed by a five-game winless streak. But since then Italy has been virtually unstoppable, with Mancini’s 74% winning rate the highest of any Italian coach.
“It was about having a charismatic leader and someone that fans and players could admire for what he accomplished,” added Italian football writer Danielle Verri.
“He won league titles with City and Inter, he won Coppa Italia with Fiorentina and Lazio and has done well everywhere he has gone. He has good players but deserves credit for helping this team to develop and flourish.
“There has been a tremendous sense of positivity since he arrived. You can see it in the attitude of the players at training camps and those vibes are evident in the way they play.”
Break with tradition and bloody youth
Mancini’s commitment to deliver a “rebirth” began by abandoning the conservative counterattack style that helped the country win four World Cups.
“It was against tradition but after not qualifying for the World Cup he probably could have done anything because it was so low,” added Di Matteo.
“He was very well received by the fans. All his players are brave [on the ball] and playing for teams that play progressive football, so that was the right thing to do. ”
Italy’s daring approach in a fluid 4-3-3 formation has seen them score 53 goals in their last 17 games, while conceding just three.
There was also a focus on youth, with six squad members reaching the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championship in 2017 with former players like Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
Mancini was also not afraid to overtake traditional Italian giants in his search for players, making his debut at then-21-year-old Nicolo Barella long before the midfielder moved from Cagliari to Inter.
Most recently, Sassuolo’s 21-year-old forward Giacomo Raspadori – who has been compared to Italian great Paolo Rossi – became the 35th debutant out of 67 players to feature during Mancini’s tenure.
While not universally popular, Italy even produced a special green “renaissance” kit in October 2019, designed to celebrate their many emerging talents.
“It just shows the strength in depth and quality of the new generation of U21 and Serie A players,” said Di Matteo.
Is Italy real contenders for the Euro?
Labeling Italy as one of the tournament’s many favorites seems justified after qualifying for the Euro with three games to go and winning all 10 games in the process.
Passing past the Netherlands, Poland and Bosnia and Herzegovina to reach the Nations League finals in October was also another milestone for Mancini’s advancing side.
And with European 2020 Golden Boot winner Ciro Immobile and several from an exciting offensive supporting cast in great shape, Di Matteo says there is “quiet confidence” that they could advance to a major first final. since Euro 2012.
“Barella has had an exceptional season and Juventus winger Federico Chiesa is a great talent,” added the former Chelsea manager.
“He can change a game on his own. It might come as a surprise because I’m not sure that many people know everything about him.
“Immobile has scored goals for fun over the last couple of years and obviously you have Lorenzo Insigne, Domenico Berardi and Andrea Belotti. There’s a lot of firepower.”
Mancini also has the luxury of a world-class midfielder, with Champions League winner Jorginho and Paris St-Germain playmaker Marco Verratti able to dictate the game.
“There are few teams that can compete with Italy in this department,” added Verri.
“Barella has racing power and there are always people like Federico Bernardeschi, Manuel Locatelli and Bryan Cristante if they have to change.”