Italy welcome big hitters to Nations League Final Four


Milan (AFP) – Italy face their first true test since winning Euro 2020 this week when Roberto Mancini’s side host the Final Four of the Nations League with three of Europe’s best ready to pounce.

The Azzurri face Spain in the first semi-final on Wednesday, with the San Siro awaiting a repeat of the Euro last-four clash with Luis Enrique’s side which ended with a penalty shoot-out victory for Italy.

The other semi-final, on Thursday, features world champions France and Belgium, ranked the planet’s best side despite also being eliminated from the summer’s European Championship by the Italians.

Italy have been on a high after beginning a memorable summer of sport for the Mediterranean nation by beating England in the Wembley final of the Euro.

Mancini has largely stuck with the heroes of that tournament for the Final Four, initially picking 22 of the Euro squad and adding in-form Roma midfielder Lorenzo Pellgrini.

He has since been forced to drop starting striker Ciro Immobile who has picked up a thigh injury and has drafted in Juventus striker Moise Kean, who shone in Italy’s last match, a 5-0 hammering of Lithuania during last month’s 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

Rafael Toloi of Atalanta is also out injured with AC Milan’s Davide Calabria called up.

France go into the tournament still smarting from their last-16 exit at the hands of Switzerland in the Euro and underwhelming performances in last month’s World Cup qualifiers.

Their 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Finland last month was their first victory after a run of five draws, not what is expected of a team packed with some of the world’s best players.

Coach Didier Deschamps will be without midfield lynchpin N’Golo Kante who contracted Covid-19 in the run up to Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat at Juventus last week.

– No excuses for France –

Also out for the Les Bleus is Olivier Giroud, who was dumped from the squad after Deschamps ended Karim Benzema’s long international exile ahead of the Euro.

Veteran forward Giroud, who sits just five goals away from equalling Thierry Henry’s all-time France record tally of 51, was also left out of AC Milan’s trip to Atalanta on Sunday with a back problem which along with a bout of Covid has hampered his start to life in Italy.

“This can’t erase what happened at the Euro, that is behind us now,” said Deschamps after announcing his squad on Thursday.

Hoping to spoil Italy’s party will be Luis Enrique’s Spain, who defied expectations to reach the Euro semis and had Italy on the back foot for large periods before being knocked out.

They will be without teen sensation Pedri, who was excellent at the Euro but is injured for the second time in less than a month and misses another youthful squad which also features his 17-year-old Barcelona teammate Gavi.

As of Sunday morning 31,000 tickets had been sold for the first match in Milan, with 13,000 bought for Sunday’s final at the same ground.

Both the San Siro and the Allianz Stadium will be at most half-full for the Final Four as Italy’s current Covid-19 legislation allows football stadia to open up to only 50 percent capacity to help guard against the spread of the virus.

There had been hopes that limit would be moved up to 75 percent ahead of this week’s matches as case numbers have remained largely under control since the spring and nearly 80 percent of Italy’s population over 12 have been fully vaccinated.

But on Thursday Italian Football Federation president Gabriele Gravina said that would have been impossible even if the rules had been changed from the start of October.

“We’re not ready, regardless of any decisions (from the government),” Gravina told reporters.

“I wish we had known this a month ago, so our communications could have been clearer… I have already said we cannot go beyond 50 percent capacity in the Nations League.”

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