How Roberto Mancini rejuvenated a weary Italy from their lowest ebb
Roberto Mancini has taken a team decried the worst in Italian history and turned them into serious contenders for Euro 2020 glory
For at least a few days in November 2017, the mood across Italy was akin to national mourning. To a country with such a rich and proud footballing history, failure to qualify for a World Cup was unthinkable. The Azzurri were four-time world champions; since the inaugural tournament in 1930 - when they had declined an invitation to participate - they had only failed to qualify for a World Cup once, and that was nearly 60 years ago, in 1958.
And yet, here they were. The unthinkable had happened. Gian Piero Ventura's side had lost the first leg of their qualifying play-off to Sweden by a single goal in Stockholm. They were widely expected to overturn the deficit in the return leg in Milan, but were thwarted by a stubborn Swedish defence. The game finished goalless in San Siro, meaning Italy would play no part in Russia the following summer.
Gianluigi Buffon left the field in tears that night. The following morning, his image was splashed across the national newspapers, which likened the failure to the apocalypse and proclaimed the end.
In some ways, it was.
Nearly four years on, the emphatic manner with which Italy swept aside Turkey in the opening game of Euro 2020 went a long to banishing the painful memories of that night in Milan. A new-look Azzurri side were dominant from kick-off: patient and tidy in possession, relentless in their pressing when not.
After an impressive pre-tournament unbeaten run, it was a display which added weight to the belief that they are serious contenders to end the summer as continental champions, that Italy - after the humiliation of missing out on the Russian World Cup - are very much back.
It is Roberto Mancini to whom most of the credit should be attributed for this Italian renaissance. Though well respected throughout Italian football, few would have envisaged the radical transformation that has taken place on his watch.
Ventura had refused to resign in the fallout from the Sweden game and was eventually dismissed soon after. Six months later, it was announced Mancini would succeed him, curtailing his time as manager of Zenit St. Petersburg to take the role.
Since guiding Manchester City to their first title in 44 years in 2012, in truth, Mancini's managerial career had seemed to drift. His next job at Galatasaray saw him win the Turkish Cup, but a second spell in charge at Inter Milan had failed to push the club any closer to loosening Juventus' dominant grip in Serie A.
To outsiders at least, Mancini might have felt like an underwhelming appointment. A team decried as the worst in Italian history, now under the guidance of a man who no longer appeared worthy of elite manager status. Qualifying for major tournaments would surely be within his grasp, but was this truly the man to return Italy to the top table of international football? It seemed unlikely.
Mancini's start was inauspicious. There was little to be gleaned from his first game in charge - a 2-1 friendly win over Saudi Arabia. This was followed by five-game winless run, including a friendly defeat to France and a Nations League loss to Portugal. Months into his reign, there was little evidence that Mancini had what it took to turn the tide.
Remarkably, though, that game against Portugal - played in Lisbon in September 2018 - was the last time Mancini's Italy tasted defeat, an unbeaten run which stretched to 27 games ahead of Euro 2020. He began the job by vowing to take Italy forward into a new dawn. He promised a bold vision, one which would see his Azzurri side break with tradition and abandon the conservative, catenaccio style with which some of Italy's most fabled sides had been synonymous.
Throughout their undefeated run, his side have shown him to be a man of his word. A more attacking team is the result - comfortable to press opponents high up the field while retaining that quintessentially Italian miserliness in defence. In their last 10 games they have scored 29 goals and conceded just one.
Mancini's team lacks some of the star quality that Italian sides of yesteryear had in abundance, but some familiar names still remain. In defence, the wily pairing of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci were rarely troubled against Turkey. Lorenzo Insigne and Jorginho boast considerable international experience while Marco Verratti is also in the squad and will start when fit.
Alongside them, Mancini has also placed plenty of emphasis on blooding youngsters, handing debuts to over 30 players since taking charge. He has resisted the temptation to exclusively select players only plying their trade at some of Italy's leading clubs. Manuel Locatelli and Domenico Berardi of Sassuolo both started against Turkey, as did Inter Milan's Nicolo Barella, who had been a Cagliari player when first called up.
This blend of experience and youthful exuberance combined with the new front-foot approach adopted by Mancini has rejuvenated Italy, lifting them from their lowest ebb. Though we can all be guilty of getting a little carried away with a touch of early tournament giddiness, their resurgence - owed to his willingness to make unfashionable choices and abandon tradition - has made Italy genuine contenders for European glory this summer.