It has been nearly a year to date since the Azzurri’s full-blown capitulation and failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup shook the country to its core, and only up until recently have the Italians shown a glimmer of hope in lifting themselves back to the summit of international football.
Much has been made about the fitness of acting coach Roberto Mancini to lead the Italian National Team back to prominence they are historically known for, but unlike his failed predecessor and universally loathed coach Gian Piero Ventura, the 53-year old CT is signaling a shift towards success through the regular integration of future stars.
Federico Chiesa, widely considered Italy’s consummate attacking talent, notched his senior debut back in March under interim coach Luigi Di Biagio. Mancini, however, has since doubled down on making the Fiorentina starlet more than just another squad player by handing him a starting role he has earned by virtue of his dazzling domestic exploits in Firenze.
Besides Federico Bernardeschi and Lorenzo Insigne who have now become established starters for Mancini, Cagliari ace Nicolò Barella was yet another beneficiary of the former Sampdoria legend’s desire for more balance in the ‘centrocampo’.
The Sardegna-born midfielder’s talent is palpable and his game plays at a much larger club than the one who has moulded him since a very tender age. While it remains to be seen just where the Casteddu dynamo’s future lies, he has already imposed himself in the national team starting XI picture with two superb shifts to help form the Blues best midfield trio with Jorginho and Marco Verratti we have seen in years.
Four days ago, Mancini summoned 27 in total for Italy’s upcoming matches with Portugal and the USMNT, bringing a stocked squad full of both familiar and fresh faces. Included in that category of newcomers are first-time call-ups Vincenzo Grifo – a German-born Italian from Hoffenheim, Stefano Sensi and the hottest property on Italian soil, Sandro Tonali.
Starting with Sensi, who has often drawn comparisons to fellow countrymen Verratti and Andrea Pirlo, yet has strived to mirror his idol Xavi, this has been a long time coming.
Bursting onto the scene back in 2015-16 at Cesena with his vision, ability to stretch the field and overall command of the deep-lying playmaker role, Sassuolo’s 23-year old metronome is not too far removed from close links with several major Italian outfits – including Juventus. Yet, for one reason or another, he had not quite been able to sparkle as much in the Italian top flight with Sassuolo. However, with age on his side and shouldering increased responsibility for a youthful Neroverdi squad charged by a Pep Guardiola disciple Roberto De Zerbi, Sensi has the makings of a late-bloomer on the peninsula.
As for Tonali, the Brescian is already making serious headway at the fruitful age of 18.
Highly-touted for his technical qualities and vision, the Lodi-born ‘regista’ has been likened to former Brescia academy graduate Pirlo – not only for the repertoire and stark similarities in playing style, but also in their silhouette; shaggy-haired and with like movements from a deeper playmaking position.
it is one thing to be compared to Pirlo, but another to replicate what the famed World Cup winner accomplished on the pitch – against the best competition, on the brightest stage, all while wearing a heavy ‘azzurro’ shirt.
Despite marveling in Serie B and only having represented Italy’s U-19′s to date, Tonali’s exploits have alerted the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, Juventus, Napoli, Milan and Inter, leading us to believe the hype is real and worthy of all the craze at Italy camp – even if he humbly rejects it.
“I was inspired by Pirlo,” admitted Tonali. “I appreciate the comparisons, but I never think about them and they do not weigh on me.”
The ‘Mancio’ era is already in full swing, with the former Manchester City, Inter and Zenit St. Petersburg boss having 7 matches under his belt entering the current international break. Though the results have been a mixed bag (2 wins, 3 draws, 2 losses), the previous UEFA Nations League encounters last month with Ukraine and Poland indicate there are real intent to usher in youth.
While the jury is still out on whether Mancini is the proper fit for the Italy job, both the ex-Premier League winning coach and his supporting cast must prove they can move from strength to strength and build on the inspiring victory last month against Poland. By no means will supporters be content with a simple fielding of U-23 talent without the positive results to go hand in hand. But, at a minimum, Mancini has succeeded early on in achieving where both Ventura and even Antonio Conte failed: showing intent to shift towards youth.
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