It was long overdue, but Italy seem set to enter the Euro 2020 qualifiers after finally turning their backs on an ageing core of players who failed to secure a place at this summer’s World Cup. Any nation would be proud to call upon Gigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele De Rossi, but names such as Marco Parolo, Eder and Antonio Candreva remained part of the squad for far too long under the previous regime.
Now led by Roberto Mancini, the matches against Saudi Arabia, France and the Netherlands have shown that a new-look squad holds much promise for the future, yet remains raw and incomplete. Over the course of those three games, the new boss cannot fail to have seen some notable displays, with one trio of players in particular stepping forward and showing they definitely belong on the international stage.
Foremost among them was Alessio Romagnoli. While Milan stumbled this season, the 23-year-old shone, unquestionably surpassing Mattia Caldara and Daniele Rugani as Italy’s most promising young defender. Skilful on the ball yet defensively diligent, tactically aware and physically tough, he has all the qualities needed to thrive at the highest level and looks like the centrepiece of a new Azzurri backline for years to come.
Further forward, Federico Chiesa also seized his chance in emphatic fashion. Former Fiorentina team-mate Federico Bernardeschi, Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi of Sassuolo have all taken turns as Italy’s brightest attacking hope, yet the 20-year-old is the one who has produced for his country. Hardworking, skilful and lightening quick, he markedly improved every facet of his play under Stefano Pioli’s guidance in Tuscany, while his famous father Enrico ensures he remains humble and continues to learn.
Regulars at the Stadio Artemio Franchi are aware of his talent, but also of the areas in which he still needs to improve, yet even the most skeptical Viola supporter would’ve enjoyed his run and cross to set up Simone Zaza’s goal against the Netherlands. Often guilty of shooting when he should pass, it was a move that underscored Chiesa’s burning desire to impress and he will clearly be a vital part of Mancini’s Italy.
However, while Romagnoli and Chiesa have arguably emerged as the Nazionale’s most important defender and attacker, it is the performance of Mattia Perin against the Dutch which might have the deepest and most surprising ramifications. As Gigi Buffon came to the end of his long and glorious Azzurri tenure, it seemed as if Gianluigi Donnarumma would slip seamlessly between the posts and continue Italy’s long-standing tradition of goalkeeping greats.
He shot to stardom with Milan much like his namesake had with Parma two decades earlier, an imposing and undeniable talent who catapulted himself to prominence. From his Serie A debut back in October 2015, Donnarumma quickly overtook a host of other players to firmly establish himself as “Buffon’s heir.” Then along came Mino Raiola.
Suddenly, instead of the focus being on his superb saves, imposing presence and a need to improve his passing, the talk centred on contracts, transfers and walking out on his boyhood club. Donnarumma was showered with fake banknotes while on national team duty, with Italy fans joining the Rossoneri faithful in labelling the teenage prodigy as a greedy mercenary.
If his off-field drama didn’t fully alienate those on the Curva Sud at San Siro, a string of unimpressive performances – capped by a horrific Coppa Italia final in which he gifted two easily avoidable goals to Juve – certainly did. That spilled over (pun intended) into his form for the Azzurri and it was no surprise that he struggled even against Saudi Arabia, nor that Mancini decided to drop him for the Netherlands clash.
Set to join the Bianconeri later this week to fill the void left by Buffon’s departure, it was somewhat fitting that Perin would make his first start for Italy at Juventus Stadium and he did not disappoint. Pulling off some crucial stops, the Genoa skipper delivered a timely reminder of his quality and prompted La Gazzetta dello Sport to say he had “won the challenge” with Donnarumma and Salvatore Sirigu. He unquestionably showed that he deserves to retain his spot when the Azzurri return to competitive action in September, impressing his new manager in what could be his new home.
The road to seeing Italy become competitive once again is a long and complicated journey, but in Alessio Romagnoli, Federico Chiesa and Mattia Perin, they at least have three men they can rely on along the way.