Milan (AFP) – From the dark days of Italy’s 2018 World Cup qualifying fiasco to the eve of the European championships, Roberto Mancini has transformed the fortunes of fallen footballing giants Italy.
A flawless Euro 2020 qualifying campaign has positioned the four-time World Cup winners as among the favourites in a tournament which they kick off at home on June 11 against Turkey in Rome.
Former Inter Milan and Manchester City boss Mancini was appointed in May 2018 after an ageing and lacklustre Italy missed out a World Cup finals for the first time since 1958, failing to score in a play-off against Sweden.
Since then Italy have lost just twice under Mancini, reaching the final phase of the Nations League and winning all three of their 2022 World Cup qualifying games.
“I feel very proud, because it was not a good situation when I arrived,” said Mancini, with Italy now sitting seventh in the FIFA rankings after having previously slipped to an all-time low of 21st.
“I tried to make the players believe in themselves, when everyone else said Italy didn’t have good quality players.”
Decline had followed Italy’s 2006 World Cup victory, with group stage exits at the 2010 and 2014 editions.
They fared better at the European Championship, a tournament they have won just once in 1968, reaching the final in 2012 and the quarter-finals in 2016.
Mancini’s side are on a run of 26 unbeaten matches since September 2018. An all-time record 11 consecutive victories was ended with a draw against Bosnia last September.
“My idea was originally to target success in the 2022 World Cup, but now we can challenge for Euro 2020,” declared Mancini, who in May extended his contract until 2026.
“We want to continue a work that has borne fruit.”
Mancini brought in a new crop of promising players while keeping faith with some of the old stalwarts such as Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Jorginho and Marco Verratti.
Roma midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo was called up in September 2018, before he had even made his Serie A debut, with Moise Kean, Federico Chiesa, and Inter Milan midfield pair Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi also joining the national setup.
Although missing a star forward of the calibre of Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane, Antoine Griezmann or Kylian Mbappe, Italy’s strike options include young Juve pair Chiesa and Federico Bernardeschi, Lazio’s Ciro Immobile and Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne.
– ‘Young, modern game’ –
For ‘Azzurri’ legend Luigi Riva, a member of Italy’s only European championship winning team 53 years ago, Mancini remains the star of the current national team.
“I am convinced that the real secret of this team is Roberto,” Italy’s all-time leading goalscorer with 35 goals in 42 appearances told Gazzetta Dello Sport.
“Mancini has given the team a young, modern game, stamped his mark.
“It is his national team.”
Riva, 76, added: “(Mancini) has based his management primarily on familiarity.
“He is a coach who follows the players, supports them, stimulates them by talking to them.
“And then he has experience, he has so many things to say, the players feel it.”
In Mancini, Italy have a coach with a solid track record as a title-winner with 13 trophies in club football, both as a player and as a manager.
He led Manchester City to their first English league title in 44 years in 2012, and won three Serie A titles with Inter Milan. He also won Italian Cups with Inter, Fiorentina and Lazio.
Since leaving England in 2013, Mancini managed Galatasaray, who he lead to a Turkish Cup, and Inter before joining Zenit Saint Petersburg in June 2017, leaving the Russian club the following year to pursue his “dream job” of coaching Italy.
A former Bologna, Lazio and Sampdoria forward, Mancini never became a regular with Italy over a 10-year international career, during which he won 36 caps and scored four goals.
The love-hate relationship ended following a dispute with coach Arrigo Sacchi in the run-up to the 1994 World Cup, which brought the curtain down on Mancini’s national career.
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