It’s been a while since there has been so much enthusiasm surrounding Italy. Roberto Mancini’s appointment after the Swedish nightmare raised some eyebrows, but despite winning just three of the nine games he’s been in charge of, Mancio managed to give identity to the team.
The results might not be in Mancini’s favour yet, but the truth is that the UEFA Nations League and the couple of friendlies that Italy played were always going to be a transition period. Plenty of players and tactics were tested during that stretch, and while the Azzurri are far from a finished article, they seem to be much closer to utilising the abundance of talent they possess, thanks to the open-minded and brave guidance of their Coach.
However, the start of the Euro 2020 qualification campaign means the time for experiments is over, as now results matter, so Italy cannot afford to underestimate any opponent, including Finland.
The Scandinavian results confirm that, as Markku Kanerva’s men have won seven of their last 10 games. It is true that Finland faced much weaker opponents than Italy did during that spell, but nevertheless they looked solid in almost every game they played in since the start of 2017, when Kanerva was appointed.
As a former defender, it is not surprising to see that the Kanerva’s tactics are mainly built around a solid goalkeeper and backline. In fact it could be argued that Finland’s biggest star is their goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, who has kept 10 clean sheets in 32 games for Bayer Leverkusen this term.
Therefore, it is also hardly a surprise to see that Finland have kept five clean sheets in the last six games that Hradecky started in.
Considering Italy’s struggles in attack and the fact that they have scored more than one goal under Mancini on just one occasion, breaking up Finland’s defence will undoubtedly be the main challenge for the Azzurri.
However, Finland also have a dangerous weapon upfront, as Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki has banged in an impressive 24 goals in 35 games for the Championship club this season and is expected to be the main threat for Gianluigi Donnarumma. The 28-year-old had also netted three winners during his country’s Nations League campaign and has 15 strikes for his country so far.
In fact despite the presence of Hradecky, the team captain Tim Sparv and Sporting Gijon’s Robin Lod, Pukki is undoubtedly the most interesting player in Kanerva’s selection. The current top goalscorer of England’s second division is enjoying his best season to date, as he has also provided nine assists. Pukki’s strongest quality is arguably his off the ball movement, as during the current campaign he has scored the majority of his goals after attacking the penalty area from wide positions.
The areas that Pukki usually targets are the channels between the central defender and the full-back, so Cristiano Piccini and Cristiano Biraghi, who are expected to start as wide defenders, should avoid leaving any spaces between themselves and the Chiellini-Bonucci pair in the middle.
The Juventus centre-backs should also avoid leaving any space for the Norwich City skipper inside the box, as Pukki is a very good shot with both feet and often takes snapshots from unexpected positions with surprising accuracy.
The truth is that Finland should not be able to spend too much time in Italy’s half, as we all expect the Azzurri to dominate the game from the beginning. Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Nicolò Barella possess enough skill and mobility to move the ball quickly enough and prevent Finland from enjoying enough possession.
However, despite the superior individual quality that Italy possess, Mancini’s men cannot afford to underestimate the opposition, as Finland have the weapons to hurt the Azzurri and we all know how the Nazionale struggle against Northern European teams.