Euro 2020: A team reborn, Roberto Mancini’s transformed Italy ‘dream big’

Italy, here celebrating their win over Wales, have not lost a match since 2018 Dates:…

Italy, here celebrating their win over Wales, have not lost a match since 2018
Dates: 11 June-11 July. Venues: Amsterdam, Baku, Bucharest, Budapest, Copenhagen, Glasgow, London, Munich, Rome, Seville, St Petersburg. Coverage: Live on BBC TV, BBC Radio 5 Live, iPlayer and the BBC Sport website and app. Click here for more details

As Italy saw out the closing moments of their 1-0 win over Wales, the home crowd at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico started singing Notti Magiche, the song of the 1990 World Cup, the last major tournament to be played in the country.

It was a nod to a gilded past and, at the same time, a celebration of the present and a glittering future.

This was Italy’s third win from three group matches at Euro 2020, an 11th successive victory – scoring 32 goals, conceding none in the process – and their 30th fixture without defeat, equalling their national record.

Next for the Azzurri is a second-round match against Austria on Saturday, and they travel to Wembley a team reborn.

From the ashes of their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, a new Italy has emerged. The defensive steel of bygone generations remains but, under manager Roberto Mancini, there is a newfound flair.

Supporters are falling back in love with their team. From the heaving fan zone in Piazza del Popolo to the taxi driver offering this reporter an excitable tactical analysis, you can feel the renewed sense of optimism sweeping the nation.

This has been a renaissance to savour for Italy’s supporters, though Sunday’s game was also a farewell of sorts. Having played their three group matches in Rome, the structure of this transcontinental competition means Italy will not return to their capital city until the tournament is over, perhaps a homecoming with a trophy to parade.

Notti Magiche, which translates as ‘magic nights’, felt therefore like an apt choice as Italy’s supporters gave their team a joyous send-off, even if it came with a hint of regret for Mancini.

“It was lovely to hear that at the end because it was a trip down memory lane, an incredible moment because we were a lot younger then,” said the 56-year-old, who was in Italy’s squad for the 1990 World Cup.

“The 1990 World Cup, with all of the fans there behind us and the love there was for that team, was absolutely extraordinary and it was a shame we couldn’t win that competition.”

Mancini’s regret was more personal than Italy’s collective disappointment. Although he featured regularly at Euro 1988 and was a star of Italian club football, he did not play a single minute at a home World Cup in which his country finished in third place.

Even for a man with a multitude of honours as a player and manager, that hurt remains and Mancini has harnessed it for the betterment of this Italy squad.

With one minute remaining of Sunday’s win against Wales, Mancini brought on second-choice goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu, who was visibly delighted to experience the buzz of representing his country at a major tournament on home turf.

Having made eight changes to his starting line-up for that match, Mancini’s introduction of Sirigu meant he had now used 25 of Italy’s 26-man squad at Euro 2020.

The manager’s mantra throughout the competition is that there is no distinction between starting players and substitutes, and he reiterated that point after Sunday’s victory, saying: “They have shown that they are all starters.”

“This Italy group is very confident in what they’re doing, they’re possessed with this sense of togetherness, a sense of collective goals and work which goes right the way back through all of Mancini’s time with Italy,” Italian football journalist Nicky Bandini told BBC Radio Wales.

“The strength of this Italy team is there’s a mindset that there are no stars here and, if someone goes down – as Marco Verratti did on the eve of the tournament, one of the highest-profile players – you can lose a player like that and in comes Manuel Locatelli, who they believe can be just as functional in what they’re trying to do.

“Italy have taken on the identity of a team who think they can win the tournament.”

Gianluigi Donnarumma embraces his replacement Salvatore Sirigu
Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma embraces his replacement Salvatore Sirigu

‘We play very good football and dream big’

Fostering such a strong sense of togetherness has allowed Mancini to usher in a new, more adventurous style of play.

Italian football has traditionally been associated with miserly defending and a reluctance to play expansively, even when a game is won. Until this summer, Italy had never scored more than two goals in a single European Championship match, despite winning the competition once and twice finishing as runners-up.

In this tournament, however, they won their first two games 3-0 against Turkey and Switzerland, blowing both teams away with vibrant performances full of attacking intent.

“This transformation really came down to a tricky time we encountered with the national team. We had this generational change with a number of young players and we wanted to achieve even more,” Mancini told BBC Sport Wales.

“But lest we forget, we’ve won the World Cup four times with the way we play football so, of course, defending is always a key tenet of our play. You need to have the right balance – you need to defend well and attack well.

“We have tried to change our mindset, particularly with regards to the way we attack. We try to play a lot more on the front foot.

“There’s a good mix. The players have done a very good job. They deserve the credit for having really bought into this style of play very quickly.”

Mancini has not always been regarded as the most attack-minded coach. Having managed clubs such as Manchester City and Inter Milan, he has demonstrated a willingness to be pragmatic where necessary.

But with this stellar Italy squad, he is playing to its strengths by adopting such a progressive approach.

Having gone more than 1,000 minutes without conceding a goal, it is clear Mancini has not forgotten the importance of defensive solidity – but in front of the likes of centre-backs Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci is a rich collection of talent.

There is a carousel of world-class midfielders, with Jorginho and Verratti dictating play, while Locatelli, Nicolo Barella and Matteo Pessina have all impressed in this tournament.

In a departure from tradition, Italy are now also blessed with exciting wide attackers such as Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa to complement centre-forwards Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti.

Illustrating their strength in depth, Chiesa, whose father Enrico also played for Italy, could not get into the team for the wins over Turkey and Switzerland but was man of the match against Wales.

“We play very good football,” the Juventus forward said after the game.

“We’re right to dream big because ultimately we are here to try and win the competition.”

Italy are justifiably confident. They are on a three-year unbeaten run, scoring freely and conceding nothing – there is no doubt they are among the favourites to win Euro 2020.

The semi-finals and finals will be played at Wembley, where Mancini tasted success as a manager with Manchester City in the 2011 FA Cup final but also anguish as a player with Sampdoria, captain when they lost the 1992 European Cup final to Barcelona.

Now with Italy, Mancini hopes Saturday’s second-round tie will be the first of three visits to Wembley this summer.

“We are very excited. We will be a test for whoever we come up against,” he said.

“It’s nice for us to go to Wembley. It’s the start of a whole new competition and we’ll need to play very well to go all the way. Our hope is to be back at Wembley further on in the competition.

“The best is yet to come.”

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