After what seemed like constant disappointment, there is a new feeling of hope with Italy’s U21 team. There has never been any doubt around the talent at the Coach’s disposal, but that hasn’t stopped the team performing well below the levels expected.
Exiting at the group stage in a European Championship they were hosting was utterly unacceptable, so Gigi Di Biagio had to go. Now they have a new man in charge and so far results have been mixed ahead of today’s trip to Armenia.
It was Coach Paolo Nicolato who was given the responsibility of leading the Under-21s, after he had guided the Under-20s to a fourth-place finish in the World Cup. He will continue working with many of the players who make the step up to the next level.
Nicolato immediately took responsibility admitting that his team had an abundance of riches, especially in attack. The likes of Andrea Pinamonti, Moise Kean and Patrick Cutrone have combined transfer fees of over €50m and that is without even mentioning the promising Gianluca Scamacca. The new boss wants to play attractive and progressive football and the early signs have been promising. They have certainly taken the game to their opponents, putting four past Moldova in a friendly, before beating Luxemburg 5-0 in the first qualifier.
The Republic of Ireland was the first big test for the new look U21s, as they had played more games in qualifying and had won them all. They are a well-drilled and polished side, but Italy were a match for them. They looked bright, had more possession and created more chances, although the game was marred by Kean’s sending off, as the Irish also lost Troy Parrott to a red card in the same incident.
There will need to be signs of improvement against Armenia especially in the way Nicolato plays, as he needs to be much braver and more innovative than Di Biagio. In the Euros this summer, a team that included the likes of Federico Chiesa, Nicolò Barella, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Nicolò Zaniolo and Moise Kean somehow failed to even get through the group stage after defeat to Poland. The Azzurrini have a proud history in the tournament, they have won in 1992, 1994, 1996, 2000 and 2004, it was expected that with his group of players, yet another would be added.
Whilst many claimed that Italy were unlucky, as they tried to play attacking football and had 31 shots against the Poles, they were still unbalanced and very predictable. The inability to finish their chances was ultimately their downfall and no matter how much Di Biagio tried to defend himself after the tournament, his limitations as a Coach were highlighted by the fact that Italy clearly had the most talented squad on the group and went out.
Now Nicolato is working on how Italy can be more clinical, and whilst nine goals in the first two games looked good, the opposition faced was weak. The first real test against Ireland wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t a success either. If they can come through the next game looking clinical, then this will put them in good stead before they face Iceland. They have an opportunity to gather points and momentum before eventually facing their next big test against Sweden next March.
Nicolato warned the media that this was a two-year process and that they would have to be patient and calm when judging this team. The problem is, we’ve heard all this before and an Under-21 side does not have the luxury of time. After two years, most of these players will have moved on.
Whilst the Coach aired words of caution, the pressure is very much on him. There should be no issue in dispatching Armenia, Luxemburg or Iceland and confidence should be high when playing Sweden and the Republic of Ireland. Qualification is a must and there is no time for talk of projects.
Italy have the talent at U21 level, there is no hiding that fact. So why can’t they deliver the results?