The nation of Italy breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief on Saturday when the draw for the Euro 2020 groups was made. The threat of being paired with World Cup winners France and European champions Portugal was a very real one, but that was instead reserved for Germany.
Ultimately, the Azzurri were joined in Group A by Turkey, Switzerland and Wales – none of whom are exactly pushovers but neither on the level of the aforementioned trio. CT Roberto Mancini continued his rhetoric of cautious optimism when he was asked about the draw by Radio Anch’io Sport this morning.
“The group is not as easy as everyone is saying,” he said. “But we can be optimistic. I believe all three of them have nothing to lose. They all have good, young players. Switzerland are always plucky. They know Italian football perfectly well. Wales can be surprise packages and Turkey also took four points from France in their group in the qualifiers.”
Indeed, Switzerland almost always seem to somehow make it through the groups, having done so in four of their last eight Finals appearances at the World Cup and European Championship. The tag of ‘surprise packages’ belonged to Wales at Euro 2016, putting 58 years of hurt behind them to reach the semi-finals, losing only to eventual winners Portugal.
That only leaves Turkey, who have a case for being Italy’s biggest threat in the group stage, even if Mancini’s men have home advantage facing them in the opening match of Euro 2020. For a start they are managed by Senol Gunes, who led the Crescent-Stars to third place at the 2002 World Cup – their greatest-ever achievement on the international stage.
The similarities between the two countries are remarkable, speaking as someone of Italian and Turkish extract, and you’d be hard-pressed to find two non-neighbouring nations which identify so much in terms of culture and mentality. Understanding that psyche could be key to a Turkish victory, just as much as it is for a Nazionale one.
On top of that, Turkey have no less than five of their internationals currently plying their trade in the Italian top flight in Hakan Calhanoglu, Merih Demiral and Cengiz Under, as well as summer signings Mert Cetin and Mert Muldur. Demiral and Cengiz can claim to be two of the League’s most impressive young players, while the future certainly looks bright for the two Merts.
There is also the fact that Turkey seem to have carved out a niche as a Euros team. Although they came third in Japan and South Korea some moons ago, they have qualified for four of the last six European Championships, finishing as quarterfinalists in 2000 and cruelly losing to then-winners Germany in stoppages at the last-four stage in 2008.
The two countries have already faced off at a European Championship in 2000. On that occasion, Italy just about scraped a 2-1 victory, courtesy of a slightly-jammy Filippo Inzaghi penalty. In a twist of fate, they lock horns again 20 years later to open this commemorative tournament, albeit at the Olimpico as the Azzurri profit from their status as one of 12 home nations.
The strength in this iteration of the Turkey squad lies at the back, where Demiral is the leader of a defence that includes Leicester City stalwart Caglar Soyuncu and breakout Lille star Zeki Celik, as well as the experienced Hakan Ali Kaldirim. That unit has helped the Turks keep 10 clean sheets in their last 13 games, a run which included a 2-0 win against France and a 1-1 draw.
The art of defending has for so long been synonymous with Italy, but recent results have threatened to buck that trend, with Turkey putting up a convincing fight to take that mantle from them. June 12 promises to be the biggest test yet for Federico Chiesa, Lorenzo Insigne, Andrea Belotti, Ciro Immobile and co. if Mancini’s men are serious about success next summer.