Roberto Mancini has succeeded with stage one of his mission to bounce back from failing to qualify for the last World Cup by sealing Italy’s place at Euro 2020 with Saturday’s 2-0 win over Greece that pushed their perfect qualifying run to seven matches.
In November 2017, headlines spoke of an ‘Apocalypse’ after the four-time world champions missed out on a World Cup for the first time since 1958 following playoff defeat to Sweden.
However on Sunday the Gazzetta Dello Sport gave the national side “Green light” after they qualified for next summer’s tournament in front of 60,000 fans at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, wearing green for just the second time since 1954.
“Dear Europe, here we are!” added Turin daily Tuttosport.
Previous coach Gian Piero Ventura, largely seen as an uninspiring replacement for Antonio Conte who dragged Italy to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, took the brunt of the blame for the failure almost two years ago.
But the problems ran deeper, with the 2006 World Cup winners also exiting in the group stages of the South Africa and Brazil tournaments.
Former Italy international Mancini took over in May 2018 with the task of rebuilding a demoralised team around a new generation, with the ageing heroes of Berlin bowing out.
And in front of a 60,000-crowd in the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday night Italy advanced with three games to spare to a multi-host tournament they are kicking off on June 12 in Rome.
“I feel very proud, because it was not a good situation when I arrived,” said 54-year-old Mancini.
“I tried to make the players believe in themselves, when everyone else said Italy didn’t have good quality players.”
The ‘Azzurri’ won thanks to Jorginho’s 63rd-minute penalty and a deflected strike from Federico Bernardeschi with 12 minutes remaining.
Mancini conceded his side “were not brilliant, maybe a little nervous at being back in Rome”, but it was enough to get past the 2004 European champions and qualify from a modest group which also includes Finland, Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Liechtenstein.
– Young talent –
Under Mancini Italy have lost just two matches in 17 months, against European champions Portugal, and in June 2018 to the France team who went on to lift the World Cup.
The former Manchester City and Inter Milan boss kept faith with some of the old stalwarts such as Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Jorginho and Marco Verratti.
But he has boosted confidence with a more dynamic style of attacking football, and above all bringing in a new crop of players.
AFP / Alberto PIZZOLI Back among the elite: Italy celebrate after qualifying for Euro 2020 after their World Cup flop.
Roma midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo, 20, was called up in September 2018 before he had even made his Serie A debut, with 19-year-old Everton forward Moise Kean, Fiorentina’s Federico Chiesa, 21, and Inter Milan’s 20-something midfield pair Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi also arriving.
“We’ve managed to create a team in a short space of time. It wasn’t easy but we have to thank the players who have quickly adapted to each other,” said Mancini.
“We have a lot of work to do, but we’re not far off the best European teams.”
Despite the 20 goals scored in their seven matches, the team lacks a striker of the calibre of Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane, Antoine Griezmann or Kylian Mbappe.
They approach the European tournament searching for just their second title after 1968 having finished runner-up twice.
But Mancini has warned: “My idea was originally to target success in the 2022 World Cup, but now we can challenge for Euro 2020.”