Two years have passed since the Italian national soccer team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. It was an embarrassing moment for the four-time world champions, who hadn’t missed a World Cup since 1958.
Now, the Italian squad is in much better shape. Coach Roberto Mancini, who was hired after the catastrophe in 2017, has turned Italy from a group of boring underachievers to an exciting and competitive team, full of young talent. The historically defense-heavy team is developing a new reputation as a more modern and attacking-minded team.
After a 9-1 thrashing of Armenia on Monday, Italy completed their 2020 European Championship qualifying campaign with a perfect 10 wins out of 10. This was the first time they won every single game in a tournament qualification, and they looked incredibly dominant throughout the process. They finished their qualification with a +33 goal differential, scoring 37 and only conceding four.
Although the Euro 2020 draw will not occur until the end of November, Italy has already been placed in Group A, where they will play their three group stage games in Rome, including the tournament’s opening match. The Azzurri will look to make some noise next summer and will have a genuine shot at winning their first European Championship since the 1960s.
In the last European Championship, Italy was led by Gianluigi Buffon, arguably the best goalie of all time. Now that Buffon is over 40 years old and retired from international soccer, the team has big shoes to fill. Thankfully, Italy looks to be set for at least the next decade at the goalie position. AC Milan goalie Gianluigi Donnarumma is viewed as a top young talent in the world. At just 20 years of age, Donnarumma already has the tools to lead his country to greatness.
Defensively, Italy is not as strong as they were 15 years ago, but they remain one of the world’s best defensive teams. Former FIFA and UEFA Team of the Year member Leonardo Bonucci will be the rock at the back for the Azzurri. He will either be paired with Alessio Romagnoli, the prolific AC Milan captain or Giorgio Chiellini, the Juventus defender widely recognized as one of the world’s best. Chiellini is currently sidelined by an ACL injury, but if he gets healthy by June, he will be a big boost to an already stout defense. Chelsea defender Emerson Palmieri is almost a lock to start at left-back, and either Roma captain Alessandro Florenzi or the Napoli’s up-and-coming Giovanni Di Lorenzo will slot in at right-back.
The midfield is perhaps Italy’s biggest strength. An influx of young talent has replaced the old and slow midfielders from two years ago, and the difference shows. Marco Verratti of PSG probably has the purest natural talent on the Italian team. His quickness, tenacity, vision, playmaking, and dribbling allows him to unlock defenses and spring attacks while stopping opposing rushers.
He will be joined by Chelsea midfielder Jorginho, another skilled passer, and playmaker. The third spot in Italy’s three-man midfield is up for grabs. It could go to either Nicolò Barella or Stefano Sensi, the two young Inter midfielders who have impressed early in their club seasons. Roma youngster Nicolò Zaniolo or Sandro Tonali, the Brescia teenager nicknamed “The New Pirlo”, could also claim that the final spot.
On attack, Italy has plenty of strong options, but inconsistencies have hurt them in the past. Lorenzo Insigne is the clear cut leader of the forwards and the only one who will definitely be starting next summer. The Napoli left winger is one of the best players in Serie A and can score and assist with ease.
On the right-wing, there is much more ambiguity. Fiorentina forward Federico Chiesa is probably the best option. Despite his skill and dribbling prowess, he has occasionally had trouble finishing off his chances. Federico Bernardeschi of Juventus is another option. His flair and creativity are very valuable to the team, but he doesn’t always perform to his potential.
Since Mario Balotelli’s behavior-induced absence from the national team, Italy has lacked an elite goal-scoring center forward. The two most likely options to start at striker for the Azzurri next summer are Lazio’s Ciro Immobile or Torino’s Andrea Belotti. Both are having very productive seasons this year, and Immobile is Serie A’s leading scorer, beating out players like Cristiano Ronaldo.
Both have also performed well recently with the national team during Euro 2020 qualification. However, in recent years, the two really struggled in putting the ball in the net and their lack of finishing was the main reason why Italy didn’t qualify for the last World Cup. Balotelli is back in Italy playing for Brescia, and he can carve out a role on the national team if he has a decent year.
Is Italy the favorite for Euro 2020? No. Teams such as Spain and France may still have the edge over the Azzurri and teams such as Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, and England will be tough as well. Italy is still young and may need just a little more experience in order to win a major tournament.
This does not mean that an Italian triumph next summer is out of the question. Italy has a respected and successful coach, a defense that is hard to score on, a young but extremely skilled and dangerous midfield, and a group of forwards who can really cause some damage if they get into a groove.