There is an excitement building around the Italian camp ahead of their clash with Portugal. Perhaps it is because the Azzurri could only go in an upward trajectory since June, perhaps it is because few expected much of Roberto Mancini, but now the project is interesting, there is hope again. Maybe, just maybe, it was the Giampiero Ventura debacle with Chievo that proved a stark reminder of how bad things were in recent memory. No matter what the reason, things look bright.
The Azzurri CT was clear about his objectives when talking to Rai in the build-up. He stated that the aim was, of course, to reach the final phase of the Nations League and that means beating Portugal in the weekend’s game. His team lost the reverse fixture, which means that even if they pull off a victory, they will have to hope that Poland can do them a favour in the final match. In the last meeting, the Azzurri played a very young an experimental squad and the Coach was criticised for not taking the competition seriously but things have change since then.
In Italy’s last outing against the Poles, the away side won 1-0 win a late goal from Cristiano Biraghi. Despite the dramatic finish, Mancini’s men put in one of their best performances of 2018 and showed signs that they had mental strength to boot. It was no surprise that this was a key focus for Mancio in his Press conference.
If his team can replicate that tempo and intensity then the result will follow. His squad has also raised eyebrows, as the likes of Brescia’s Sandro Tonali have been brought into the fold after an impressive season in Serie B. That move has even overshadowed the inclusion of Sassuolo's Stefano Sensi.
Tonali is only 18 and has played 11 times this campaign, scoring once and creating four goals.
“I want to stress again that he is incredibly gifted and has clear margins for growth,” Mancini said after handing the midfielder his first call-up. “I’ll get to know him better over the next few days”.
The opportunity to a player plying his trade in Serie B has shown that the coach is willing to look outside the box for Italy’s next bright, young thing and Tonali certainly looks to be that. The fact that he has long hair, plays for Brescia and is a midfielder, has seen the Italian press dub him the ‘new Pirlo’.
Mancini is clear that, even more than the result, the performance will be key against Portugal. One could argue that with two wins in seven games in charge, he should be concentrating just on the three points, especially as a victory would see the Azzurri top the group in the Nations League.
The exciting thing for Italian fans is that the ‘mister’ is focusing on style and longevity. He is looking for Italy to form a new identity built on solid defending, tactical astuteness but more importantly, a new fluidity built around the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernadeschi and Federico Chiesa. Italy, in their 4-3-3 formation are starting to look like they have all of the pieces to take them back to where history suggests they should be in the ranks of World football.
With midfielders like Jorginho, Nicola Barella, Marco Verratti and, who knows, Sandro Tonali, Italy have all the components to compete with any major nation and, excitingly, they can move the ball with pace. The game against Portugal will see a lot of focus on Ciro Immobile, as perhaps the Azzurri’s most obvious weakness in the lack of a reliable centre-forward, something proven by Mancini’s insistence on playing Insigne as a false nine in previous games. The Coach’s comments that performance is key perhaps resonate more, when one takes into account the dedication the country has to rebrand itself on the world stage.
Mancini is rebuilding a broken nation, and perhaps the friendly against USA will be more of an acceptable baptism for the new blood. The game against Portugal may still see some surprises though. As Mancio said: “Whoever proves themselves can play a part. We must play good football and win the fans back. We are Italy”.