Take one look at Italy’s Under-21 squad for the European Championships and you would be forgiven for mistaking it for their senior team.
The player list boasts the obvious big names such as Federico Chiesa, Nicolò Zaniolo and Moise Kean, but also some diamonds in the rough like Alessandro Murgia, Alessandro Bastoni and Kevin Bonifazi. Of course, we could sit and list off every great player in the party, but the truth is that the side is full of so much quality, we would just be copying and pasting the lot.
Italy are the most successful team in the history of the U21 European Championships, having won the tournament five times, including three in a row row between 1992 and 1996. In 1996, the Azzurri squad was full of some young Italians who would go on to be rather famous: Francesco Totti, Christian Vieri and Alessandro Nesta, to name but a few.
With this year’s tournament on home turf, Italy will be looking to make it six. Under the guidance of former Inter and Roma midfielder Luigi Di Biagio, who has been in the Italian managerial system since 2011 – when he spent a two-year spell in charge of the under-20 side before moving onto the U21s where has stayed since, aside from a brief caretaker spell in charge of the Azzurri’s first team.
Realistically, Italy should be lifting the trophy at the end of the tournament, or at the very least cutting it close. It is a chance for not only a talented group of individual youngsters to come together as a team and lift a trophy for their country, but also an opportunity for these players to catch the eye of bigger clubs.
The U21 European Championships are a historic hunting ground for scouts. Representatives from clubs all over the world will be in attendance as they look for those special talents to report back on. In the Italy squad, a lot of attention will be focused on the midfield. This is not to say that the attack and defence are not as talented, because they certainly are, but the midfield is full of a group of young men who could probably break into the first teams of many clubs and countries.
Brescia’s Sandro Tonali is one of the obvious names to watch in the squad; having been a frequent entry into the Italian press this season just gone, with Juventus said to have been leading the pack for a player considered by some to be the ‘next Pirlo’. Nicolò Zaniolo, similarly, had a breakthrough this season with Roma, after switching clubs from Inter as part of the deal to send Belgian Radja Nainggolan to the Nerazzurri.
There is the concern, however, that all this pressure could get to the heads of the young Italians and their performance could suffer as a result. Italy will come up against Belgium, Spain and Poland in the group stage, all formidable foes with a talented youth squad.
Spain won the tournament in 2011 and 2013, as well as finishing as runners up in 2017. Belgium, meanwhile, have not qualified for the tournament since 2007 but their first team sit atop the world rankings, meaning they are not to be underestimated.
In all, Di Biagio has a tough challenge on his hands, despite having a phenomenal squad at his disposal. Every player in the side will be ready to prove themselves to perhaps earn a big move but this leads to the risk of selfishness and the team not gelling properly.
Furthermore, as Italy qualified automatically as hosts, this current team have not really played a competitive fixture together and haven’t played a friendly since two draws against Croatia and Austria in March. This lack of team experience and qualifying process could end up costing Italy and Di Biagio will have to make sure he has coached the side properly in the past couple of weeks and prepared them for the challenges ahead.