Roberto Mancini Puts Italy on the Right Track

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Since being appointed as Italy boss, Roberto Mancini has set Gli Azzurri on the right path, and has guided them to four wins out of four in their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign thus far. 

In their most recent clashes, Italy travelled to Athens to take on Greece, and dispatched their European counterparts within thirty-three minutes, by a score of 3-0.

In their next game against Bosnia, Mancini’s men fell behind early, but mounted a second half comeback to prevail by a score of 2-1. Under Gian Piero Ventura, the side lacked character, and would have likely dropped points in a game like this. With these two wins, Italy now find themselves comfortably in first place, scoring 13 goals, and conceding one in the process. In addition to getting results, this is the best football Italy have played in recent memory, and have demonstrated an identity.

Once again, Mancini was rewarded for sticking with the highly technical midfield of Nicolo Barella, Jorginho, and Marco Verratti, and now has his side well on their way to the upcoming Euros. Together, the trio provide a blend of youth, experience and quality on the ball, and offer the national team some much needed creativity in the final third.

While many initially doubted the midfield’s defensive awareness given their smaller frames, Verratti, Jorginho and Barella have demonstrated they are capable of offering solidity to their back four. Given their similar profiles, Verratti and Jorginho often interchange roles at the base of the midfield, and don’t give their opponents a reference point.

With Barella making late, unmarked, runs into the box, it makes for a truly malleable midfield; something the Azzurri have sorely lacked over the past four years. The Cagliari captain’s drive has been rewarded, and already has two goals on the qualifying campaign.

Much like it’s the case in the midfield, Mancini has not shied away from taking risks with his front three. Since his appointment, the former Inter tactician has called up a number of up and coming talents, including the likes of Moise Kean and Federico Chiesa among others.

In the past, Ventura was afraid to take risks, and typically stuck with Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti up front, despite their struggles. When both strikers were misfiring, Italy did not have a plan B, and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades. Rather than having set starters, like his predecessor, Mancini has mixed and matched at will, and has used a plethora of forwards across the front line. This keeps the Italian forwards on their toes, and ensures no one gets complacent. Moreover, if Italy are struggling in the final third, Mancini is able to turn to different solutions.

One player that has benefitted immensely from Mancini’s reign has been Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne. The diminutive forward was reduced to a bit-part role under Ventura, and largely struggled to make an impact on the pitch when called upon. Under Mancini, Insigne has established himself as a crucial player, and has scored two goals in his last two games. In addition, his assist to Verratti against Bosnia helped Gli Azzurri seal all three points.

On the defensive end, on the other hand, Mancini has decided to maintain the status quo and has typically gone with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. However, the Italian tactician has tinkered with his fullbacks, alternating between Leonardo Spinazzola, Emerson and Gianluca Mancini. While Mancini is a centre-back, he offers the Azzurri tactical flexibility from the right-hand side of defence, and often drops as a third centre-back when in possession. With the Atalanta man dropping centrally, it allows the left-back to get forward and overload with his winger.

While it’s still early days for Gli Azzurri, the future looks bright under Roberto Mancini. Using a blend of experience, and youth, the Italian tactician has demonstrated character both in his selections, and tactical setups. With no one’s place in the team secured, Italy have – for the first time in a while – shown hunger, and a desire to return to the top.

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Kean Deserving of More Minutes in Ronaldo’s Absence

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After Cristiano Ronaldo went down clutching his hamstring in Portgual’s latest Euro qualifier against Serbia, alarm bells went off in Turin. With a crucial Champions League clash approaching against Ajax, Juventus want their star man fit and raring to go. It has since been reported that the former Real Madrid man will likely miss the bianconeri’s clashes against Empoli, Cagliari and Milan but will be fit for their quarter-final encounter.

In the meantime, Massimiliano Allegri would be wise to make the most of the squad depth at his disposal, and give Moise Kean a more prominent role. Since the beginning of the season, the Italian international hasn’t played much, but has not disappointed when given the chance, consistently finding the back of the net.

Most recently, Kean made his presence felt on the international level, scoring two goals in two starts in Gli Azzurri’s Euro qualifiers against Finland and Liechtenstein. While the level of the opposition was questionable at best, the 19-year-old, much like it has been the case all season, did well to make the most of his opportunities and announce himself on the world stage.

With Ronaldo out for the foreseeable future and with the league practically wrapped up, it’s as good a time as any to allow Kean to prove his worth, starting with the Empoli game. However, latest reports indicate that Allegri is going the safe route and will field a front three of Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic and Federico Bernardeschi.

Since the new year, Mandzukic has struggled for form, and hasn’t scored in his last ten games in all competitions. You would have to go all the way back to his goal against Roma on December 22nd for his last strike. Against Atletico Madrid, the Croatian looked a shadow of his former self, and was regularly beat in the air by the imposing Diego Godin or Jose Gimenez. A spell on the sidelines allowing him to recover could do him some good. Mandzukic will always prove to be a willing runner but, Allegri’s side are going to need more from him if they are to hoist the Champions League.

Dybala, by contrast, hasn’t had his best year in bianconero and has had issues adapting to a deeper role since Ronaldo’s arrival.

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While giving them minutes together alongside Bernardeschi – a surefire starter at this point – is a good contingency plan should Ronaldo miss out of the Ajax clash, Kean should still be afforded more playing time. After all, he’s one of the few Juventus forwards that has consistently made an impact when on the pitch in recent times while others have struggled.

Moreover, it would prove to Kean that Juventus are serious about his development, and would go a long way in future contract negotiations. With half of Europe queuing up for the Italian’s signature, as recent reports would suggest, Juventus must do everything in their power to ensure he stays long-term.

As April 10th approaches, and with Ronaldo’s injury status still uncertain, Allegri must ensure his front-line are firing on all cylinders. One thing’s for certain: Benching Kean and stopping his momentum at this point in the season isn’t the best way to go about that.

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Three Azzurri Standouts Against Finland

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Italy started their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign in the best possible fashion, dispatching Finland comfortably 2-0, handing senior debuts to a number of the nation’s budding superstars. While Roberto Mancini is still fiddling with his best starting eleven, certain newbies stood out from the rest.

1) Moise Kean

Every time Kean is given minutes, be it for Juventus or at the international level, the 19-year-old scores. It’s simple; it’s in his nature. Since breaking onto the scene in Turin, the young striker has made the most of his limited opportunities, and has consistently found the back of the net.

When Allegri started him for the first time in the Coppa Italia against Bologna, Kean marked his debut with a goal. Similarly, when the Juventus tactician fielded him from the get-go in the league against Udinese, Kean netted a brace with ease, and could have even had a hat-trick.

Just last week, Mancini gave the 19-year-old his first start for the senior national team, albeit in an unfamiliar right wing position, and Kean impressed. Despite being played out of position, the Juventus man looked dangerous throughout and was a constant menace to the Finnish rearguard.

It wasn’t, however, until the 74th minute that Kean made his mark after a wonderful run and through ball from Ciro Immobile put him through. Much like it has been the case his entire career, Kean didn’t think twice and slid it home effortlessly past a helpless Lukás Hrádecky.

As the Azzurri are looking for their undisputed number nine, Kean might just prove to be their best bet.

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2) Nicolò Barella

In just his fifth start at the international level, Cagliari midfielder Barella dominated proceedings, and netted his first goal for Gli Azzurri, in what was an overall accomplished performance. Since Mancini has assumed the reigns of the national team, Barella has been a regular in the midfield alongside Marco Verratti and Jorginho, and will likely be a key asset at the upcoming Euros.

Considering his diverse skill-set, Barella acts as the perfect foil in Mancini’s midfield, and has gone from strength to strength for Cagliari this season. Equally capable of defending as he is attacking, Barella epitomizes today’s modern midfielder, and will command a massive figure on the market when Cagliari decide to sell.

At the moment, Chelsea, Inter, and Napoli are all said to be interested in the 22-year-old and will all go head-to-head for the young midfielder’s signature come summertime. Mature beyond his years, Barella is already captaining Cagliari, and is ready to become a mainstay in azzurro blu. 

3) Fabio Quagliarella

The veteran striker made his return to the fold for the first time in nine years since the debacle in 2010, and almost scored with his first touch of the game. Given just over ten minutes to prove his worth, Quagliarella demonstrated his predatory instinct and struck the bar after an incisive run.

On another night, and given more minutes, the former Napoli hitman could have easily scored a few. This season, the 36-year-old has had a career year and a renaissance of sorts, netting 21 goals and seven assists in 27 league appearances, which right now, is good for the capocannoniere lead.

While Quagliarella clearly won’t be a part of Mancini’s long-term plans as he’s nearing 40, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t feature at next summer’s tournament. Capable of finding the back of the net with limited touches, the veteran talisman could make quite the impact off the bench in a tight game.

With Italy taking on Liechtenstein tomorrow in their second qualifier of their campaign, expect Mancini to reward Quagliarella with a start. After all, he’s more than earned it.

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While it’s still early days, Mancini has demonstrated signs that he’s the right man to lead the national team into their next phase. Blending youth and experience, the former Inter tactician has no prejudices when it comes to his squad selection and has shown that he will take the best player available, no matter their age or reputation.

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Italy 2-0 Finland: Player Ratings for the Azzurri

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On Saturday at the Stadio Friuli in Udine, Italy managed to secure the 2-0 win over Finland in Group J of Euro 2020 Qualifying thanks to Nicolò Barella and Moise Kean opening up their accounts for the Azzurri.

Here are the player ratings from the victory. Continue reading

Mancini Makes Questionable Choices in The Final Third

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Since being appointed Italy boss after the World Cup debacle, Roberto Mancini has done well to implement a distinct style of play, and identify key players for his setup moving forward. With the defence and midfield all but set, barring a few adjustments, the attack remains Mancini’s last puzzle. While the former Inter tactician has introduced the likes of Federico Chiesa and Moise Kean into the fold, some of Mancini’s choices in the final third have been questionable, to say the least.

In Mancini’s latest selections, Vincenzo Grifo and Leonardo Pavoletti both got the call to represent their nation. The latter, a 30-year-old mid-table journeyman, won’t be on the international scene for much longer and failed at the only big club he was at, while Grifo has only played eight games in league action this season thus far for Freiburg and has never demonstrated to be anything more than a decent squad player.

After years of struggling for options in the final third, Mancini is finally blessed with various talents in the attacking department, be it with Bernardeschi, Chiesa, and Kean among others. Now is not the time to experiment with players who are on the wrong side of 30 or haven’t been consistent in front of goal.

Regardless of their form this season, neither Pavoletti or Grifo will represent Italy next summer, and neither deserves to take valuable experience away from the nation’s budding forwards. What is more puzzling is that the in-form Andrea Belotti was left home, despite his recent resurgence.

The Torino forward has lead the line exceptionally well, and has propelled I Granata into an unlikely race for European football. While he’s had better goal tallies in past seasons, Belotti has become a more well-rounded forward under Walter Mazzarri and is ready for another go on the international scene. At 25 years old, Il Gallo is about to enter the prime of his career, and is an excellent option for Mancini.

Another player who could have also gotten the call ahead of Pavoletti and Grifo was Mario Balotelli. Despite some previous attitude concerns, Supermario’s has been Italy’s most consistent forward over the years, and has done well in Marseille, scoring four goals in his last six games. Mancini had this to say about Balotelli’s exclusion.

“Balotelli still isn’t in peak condition, he’s improving but I expect a lot from him and he can improve further. In general, all of the technical players are improving and this is comforting for me.” (Source: Twitter – @Azzurri)

The reality is that, much like Balotelli, Grifo hasn’t played much for Freiburg, and yet still received a call-up. Had Mancini cited previous indiscipline as his reason, it would have made Balotelli’s exclusion understandable. Regardless, Supermario deserves one more run with the Nazionale, and will likely get the chance next time around.

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While Mancini has done relatively well at blending youth with experience, another player who should have, at the very least, been part of the training camp is Milan’s Patrick Cutrone. Since breaking onto the scene, the Milan forward has demonstrated all the raw abilities of a top forward, and has a knack for being at the right place at the right time.

At just 21 years old, Cutrone, alongside Juventus’ Moise Kean, are easily Mancini’s best long-term bets. Since Krzysztof Piatek’s arrival, however, Cutrone has found playing time hard to come by. Despite this, he deserves a shot with the national team, and could prove useful at the upcoming Euros if given consistent playing time.

Moving forward, Mancini can’t keep turning to the likes of Pavoletti and Grifo as they are taking away development time from Italy’s potential, long-term number nines. Let’s face it, neither will make the final squad while Belotti, Balotelli and Cutrone all have a great shot. The ball’s now in Mancini’s court.

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Napoli’s Alex Meret is back on the goalkeeping radar in Europe

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When teenage sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma overthrew Diego Lopez as AC Milan’s undisputed number one keeper back in 2016, and was tipped as the heir to heralded champion Gianluigi Buffon’s Azzurri throne, many other young shot-stoppers in Italy’s talent factory fell by the wayside.

Despite the long lineage of developing top keepers and track record of producing in both quality and quantity, the Mino Raiola-represented star seemed to be a notch above the rest the country’s domestic talent. But in 2017, it was Italy U-17 goalkeeping coach Fabrizio Ferron’s bold affirmation of another from Udine as being technically superior to the Rossoneri phenomenon ushering another into the conversation for the peninsula’s top goalkeeping talent. Continue reading

Kean Proves Worthy of More Minutes

Juventus started the new year with a convincing win against Bologna in the Coppa Italia, a competition they have now won four times in a row. With many of the bianconeri’s starters watching from the sidelines including the likes of Ronaldo and Dybala, the side’s fringe players got some much needed minutes to prove themselves and largely impressed in the win. Leonardo Spinazzola was a constant threat down the left, Emre Can was tidy in the midfield alongside Pjanic, and Bernardeschi was even able to pocket himself a goal. Yet the real storyline was undoubtedly Italian wonder-kid Moise Kean. 

The 18-year-old got his first start of the season, and made the most out of it snatching a goal early in the second half off a ricochet on Douglas Costa’s shot. Demonstrating his killer instinct within the 18-yard-box, Kean made no mistake and poked it past a helpless Da Costa before he could intervene. It was his second goal in a Juventus shirt, both coming against Bologna. After just over an hour of leading the line, the U-21 Italian international made way for Ronaldo, and will be pleased overall with his performance.

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Stefano Sensi, Sassuolo’s midfield metronome manifesting his true potential

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Sassuolo are one of Serie A’s biggest surprises thus far in the 2018-19 campaign, lurking unexpectedly amongst the pack for a top four spot in the table after 17 rounds. Roberto De Zerbi’s astute tactical approach and philosophy has been transmitted onto his fledging Neroverdi squad, yielding results from a system which has earned acclaim across the continent.

While De Zerbi’s significant impact since arriving at Mapei Stadium this past summer is palpable and largely to credit for Sassuolo’s emergence this season, few have thrived more under the tutelage of the ex-Foggia coach than young Italian midfielder, Stefano Sensi. Continue reading

Blue Wave: Mancini Calling Up Sensi and Tonali Signals Azzurri Shift

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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. Continue reading

Italy improving under Mancini, but supporters must pump the breaks

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After banging in the stoppage-time goal at the back post thanks to substitute Kevin Lasagna’s initial glancing header from the corner, Fiorentina’s Cristiano Biraghi’s late-game heroics were enough to see Italy past Poland 1-0 on Sunday, escaping relegation from Group 3 in the UEFA Nations League.

The 26-year old celebrated his first international tally by throwing up a “13″ towards the heavens in honor of the late Viola captain Davide Astori. Surely, it was a unifying moment for Italy and Italians everywhere who swarmed the match-winner and finally had something to rally around after 12 months of heartbreak.

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