‘Little owl’ Verratti gives new impetus to high-flying Italy


Milan (AFP) – Marco Verratti’s return from injury has given new impetus to an Italy side looking increasingly like title contenders at Euro 2020.

The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder returned after a six-week knee injury layoff to help the Azzurri make it three wins out of three in the group stage against Wales last weekend.

Next up for Italy is a last-16 game against Austria in Wembley on Saturday.

It was a free-kick from Verratti, known as the ‘Little owl’, that set up Matteo Pessina for the only goal against Wales.

The 28-year-old took the captain’s armband when defender Leonardo Bonucci was substituted in the second half, with regular skipper Giorgio Chiellini sitting out the game with a muscular problem.

A delighted Roberto Mancini hugged Verratti as he left the pitch at the Stadio Olimpico, having surpassed expectations by playing the entire match in midfield alongside Jorginho.

“(Verratti) showed that they are all starters,” said coach Mancini, who left in-form midfielder Manuel Locatelli on the bench in favour of the PSG player.

Verratti and Jorginho are Mancini’s first-choice midfield pairing, and having the duo in the driving seat again is a boost to Italy’s hopes of lifting a trophy they have won once, back in 1968.

Both are experienced on the European stage, with Verratti a runner-up in the 2020 Champions League with PSG, while Brazil-born Jorginho, 29, lifted the trophy with Chelsea last month.

Mancini made eight changes for the Wales game with 29-year-old Jorginho, just one of three players to remain, having played all three group games.

Locatelli played in Verratti’s absence in the first two games and scored a brace against Switzerland.

But while Verratti may be back, Locatelli can still hope to play a role, with the pair rotating in team training in Coverciano, outside Florence.

“When we say that this team is for everyone, we’re not just saying that,” said Verratti, who has played 41 games for Italy since making his debut against England in August 2012, scoring three goals.

“There are 26 of us and all of us are proud to represent our country and ready to give our best.”

He added: “I’m very pleased (to be back) and thank Mancini for waiting for me. It was tough, as at the start I wasn’t even sure if I could play this tournament after the injury.

“It happened in 2016 and I feared it was going to happen again. I thank the medical staff and the coach who waited for me. It was a special day and I’m very happy.”

– Record beckons –

Mancini took over after Italy’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

And they have lost just twice in 35 games under the former Manchester City manager — with 26 wins and seven draws.

Verratti and Jorginho were absent in both those defeats — by France in a friendly in June 2018 before they won the World Cup, and European champions Portugal in the Nations League the following September.

Since then they are unbeaten and a 31st game without defeat against Austria would see Mancini’s men overtake two-time World Cup winning coach Vittoro Pozzo’s side’s all-time Italian record in the 1930s, which was matched against Wales.

Mancini has used 25 of 26 players available, with the exception third-choice goalkeeper Alex Meret.

Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma helped make it 11 consecutive victories without conceding a goal.

A 12th straight win would match the run of the team under Ferruccio Valcareggi, who led Italy to their only European title in 1968, and a runners-up spot in the World Cup two years later.

The last goal scored against Italy was in October 2020 against the Netherlands.

“So far the Azzurri have shown the best football of the Europeans,” former England captain Sol Campbell told Gazzetta Dello Sport.

“Mancini is doing a great job. Even in the last game against wales, despite eight changes the script has remained unchanged.

“I like Verratti, he has really important shots. Pessina is a discovery, (Rafael) Toloi too.”

Italy have won all four of their previous meetings against Austria at major tournaments.

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