Italy have got used to winning. There was incredulity back in 2018 when Roberto Mancini took over as manager of the Azzurri and announced his ambition to lift the European Championship and then the World Cup. They had just failed to qualify for the latter competition for the first time in 60 years. As La Gazzetta dello Sport’s leader writer Luigi Garlando recalled this week: “We hid our chuckles with bursts of coughing.”
Yet Mancini achieved that first objective, steering his team past Belgium, Spain and finally the hosts, England, to win Euro 2020. It was the beginning of an unprecedented sporting summer. Italians claimed 40 medals at the Olympics, including 10 golds. They followed up with 69 medals at the Paralympics, then victory in the men’s and women’s European Volleyball Championships.
On it went into the autumn, with cycling golds for Elisa Balsamo and Filippo Ganna at the UCI Road World Championships and then Sonny Colbrelli in the Paris-Roubaix race. Even Mancini’s team got back in on the act, as they extended their undefeated run to 37 matches – a new world record in men’s international football.
There would be no stifled laughter if the manager proposed further success in the Nations League Finals that take place this week on home soil. Instead, Mancini has been trying to downplay expectations before Wednesday’s game against Spain.
“They were the team we struggled against most during Euro 2020,” he reminded his audience in an interview for Uefa’s website. “It would be amazing to win [the Nations League straight] after the European Championship and it would be amazing to qualify for the World Cup early, but it won’t be that easy.”
Italy required a defiant performance to beat Spain in June, battling their way to a penalty shoot-out despite holding barely 30% of possession. The match reports celebrated a triumph for old values of defensive expertise but for Mancini this was new ground. Italy have sought throughout his tenure to dominate the ball and dictate the tempo of games.
“Spain have been playing [this kind of possession game] for 20 years and they are further along with it than us,” Mancini said at his pre-game press conference on Tuesday. “We still need to improve. We need to go even faster.”
Perhaps they will find greater opportunities for control against a Spain side that has been hit hard by injuries. The visitors are without Pedri, the extraordinary 18-year-old midfielder who did not miss a pass until the 102nd minute of their meeting at Wembley, and short of options up front. Dani Olmo, who started as a false No 9 in their previous meeting, and Álvaro Morata, who came off the bench to score, are both unavailable, as is Gerard Moreno.
Italy players celebrate their semi-final victory over Spain on penalties. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian
Italy are missing their top two strikers as well, but neither Ciro Immobile nor Andrea Belotti have ever matched their domestic form for the national team. Mancini could try Federico Chiesa at centre-forward after watching him line up in that position, and score the winner, against Chelsea in the Champions League.
This may be a good moment to refresh the lineup in any case. Despite maintaining their unbeaten run, Italy’s attack looked toothless during back-to-back draws against Bulgaria and Switzerland in World Cup qualifying in September. The Roma captain, Lorenzo Pellegrini, who missed the Euros due to injury but has scored four goals in six league games this season from a position behind the attack, is pushing hard for a spot in the starting XI.
Crowd sizes are restricted to 50% of stadium capacity in Italy because of the coronavirus pandemic, but that will still mean an attendance of around 37,000 for the game at San Siro. Ticket sales have been brisk, too, for the second semi-final, between Belgium and France, one day later in Turin.
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Top of Fifa’s world rankings since 2018, Belgium lost to France in the semi-final of that year’s World Cup before being eliminated by Italy at the Euros this summer – exiting both times to the eventual champions. Avenging the first of those defeats would qualify them for Sunday’s final and put them within touching distance of a trophy that could validate an era of sustained brilliance.
“I’ve always asked myself how a nation of 11m people could produce such a diverse group of players,” said their manager, Roberto Martínez. “It’s a special generation and they deserve a title.”
With five players boasting 100 or more caps – Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld – and a couple more not far behind, it is a group who have come a long way together. For the final step, perhaps they only need to take a leaf from Mancini’s book and embrace the extent of their ambition.