Has Euro 2020 qualifying been too predictable with ultimately too many miss matches?

Euro 2020 qualification is shaping up with all of the big guns qualifying easy, but have the bigger nations just had it too easy this time?

UEFA has increased the competition from 16 teams to 24, their excuse is that more nations who normally don’t qualify will get that chance and Finland have reaped that reward as an example. Wales are their too. But at the same time increasing by 8 teams also means it is very unlikely that we will get any shocks. For example the Netherlands have failed to qualify for a couple of major competitions this decade and Italy not being at the 2018 World Cup was a major surprise. Increasing teams chances also means that the bigger nations can have off days and still qualify.

England are a good example of how qualifying for the competition has basically become mundane, boring and predictable. Yes if you’re an England fan you would love the fact that the nation scored 11 goals in their last two qualifying games and didn’t ship any in their 7-0 win over Montenegro and 4-0 victory over Kosovo. But once you see that a whole domestic weekend of Premier League football had to be shifted in order to see such a miss match it just makes no sense.

England are not the only ones. There has been huge victories for the likes of Portugal and Spain and Italy recorded a 9-1 win over Armenia. Talk about competitive football.

In truth it is hard not to think that qualifiers exist for two reasons: Gate receipts and for UEFA to spread their brand and sponsorship. The solution seems an easy one not to have a qualification process. Qualifying has simply become too easy for the big nations whilst other nations are producing miss matches. Yes lesser footballing nations need that competitive football and they will get that with the UEFA Nations League, a rather silly idea but better than friendlies. Though let’s remind ourselves that friendlies still exist.

So just have no qualification and have all European national sides qualify for the competition proper. True it means the likes of San Marino could get hit for 10 goals in the competition proper, but the match would still feel more important being in a major competition than tucked away on a Monday night in Group E.

Qualification is here to stay though and it is just a thought. For now international football seems quite redundant as long as it’s not one of the major competitions- it is an advert in the blockbusting and interesting movie that is domestic football.

Where Next for Moise Kean?

Since joining Everton, Moise Kean has struggled to acclimate himself to his new surroundings and has since found himself on the outside looking in due to reported disciplinary issues. With Richarlison, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Cenk Tosun all competing for one spot up top, it’s difficult to envisage a situation that the former Juventus man breaks through in England. Which leads us to a very important question: Where next for Moise Kean?

After breaking onto the scene with Juventus last season, Kean was tipped as Italy’s saviour in the final third. Scoring goals in his Italy debut as well as his second game, it seemed he was ready to live up to the hype. When the Italian champions decided to sell him this past summer, many were left perplexed by their decision as the young forward impressed on every occasion. Let’s now evaluate some options for Kean.

Roma: 

Paulo Fonseca’s men are reportedly interested in Kean and will be among his suitors come January. Given his lack of playing time, he should be available on the cheap or even on loan. This season, Roma have impressed at every turn and have done so with many Italian youth talents in their side. Whether it’s Leonardo Spinazzola, Gianluca Mancini, Nicolo Zaniolo or Bryan Cristante, Roma are committed to developing youth. As a result, Kean would not be out of place one bit in the nation’s capital.

He’s already proven capable of finding the back of the net in Italy and wouldn’t need an adaptation period. Learning from Edin Dzeko, Roma may just be an ideal landing spot for the 19-year-old.

Milan: 

Recent reports have also suggested that Kean’s agent, Mino Raiola, is exploring all opportunities for the young striker’s next move and have linked him to Milan. The rossoneri are currently a side in disarray but have a number of interesting young players on deck. Given Krzysztof Piątek’s struggles this season, Milan could use a more mobile number nine; one that could create space for himself. In addition, Kean’s arrival would increase the competition for places, perhaps igniting a fire under Piątek.

The only worry, however, is that after an initial honeymoon period, most Milan strikers tend to struggle due to a lack of service. While returning to Italy with Milan wouldn’t be his worst option, they aren’t the best fit for the 19-year-old as of right now. In this sense, Roma are a much better option.

Staying at Everton:

While we tend to link struggling players with a plethora of teams, a plausible option is that he stays in England with Everton. Despite their early struggles this season, the Toffees have a number of interesting pieces in the final third and could benefit from Kean’s return to the lineup. All it takes for a striker to feel at home is a few goals and an extended run of games; an opportunity Everton boss Marco Silva would be wise to afford Kean before the January transfer window opens.

Kean’s play is suited to the Premier League, and after an initial adaptation period, the young striker could start punishing defences. While this option is the unlikeliest at the time given recent reports, both parties should seriously consider moving forward together. Everton could use Kean and Kean could use regular football to make Roberto Mancini’s Euro 2020 roster. It’s not impossible he stays, however, let’s not forget, it’s Raiola pulling the strings.

Whether Kean returns to Italy or remains at Everton remains to be seen, however, it’s clear there will be an update shortly. Given his incredible talent and ability to find the back of the net, it’s only a matter of time before Kean finds a place to call home again. However, his disciplinary issues remain a slight concern. In any case, Italy could definitely benefit from Kean’s return to form and hope it comes sooner rather than later…

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On the Rise: Dejan Kulusevski

When Dejan Kulusevski was loaned to Parma from his parent club Atalanta not much was made of the move. Given gli Orobici’s wide array of attacking talents, many thought the young Swede was just another player who would go out on perennial loan spells before being sold. However, since joining Parma, the 19-year-old has established himself as a set starter and is a crucial piece to their front-three. But who exactly is Kulusevski?

Having grown up in Atalanta’s youth ranks after joining from his boyhood club Brommapojkarna, the 19-year-old got a comprehensive footballing education in Bergamo for three years. After all, Atalanta’s youth system is highly regarded and is viewed as one of the best in Italy. Last January, Kulusevski made his debut for Gian Piero Gasperini’s men in a 5-0 drubbing of Frosinone. The 19-year-old would make another two appearances before the season came to a close.

Given his lack of playing time and gli Orobici’s depth in the final third, Atalanta decided it was best to loan him out to Parma. With I Crociati, Kulusevski has been able to play regular minutes and has impressed this season. Typically fielded on the right-wing alongside Roberto Inglese and Gervinho, the 19-year-old is able to combine his pace and keen eye for goal to devastating effect.

In many ways, Roberto D’Aversa’s counter-attacking system suits Kulusevski’s qualities and makes the most of his talents. Given his success in this system, it’s only a matter of time before Gasperini calls him back and adds him to his arsenal of weapons.

In addition to being a goalscoring threat, Kulusevski has been Parma’s main creator this season, averaging 2.1 key passes per game. Given the freedom to roam between the lines and filter in centrally, the Parma man is able to make the most of his vision. After all, when he first started his career, he was initially an attacking midfielder.

In his seven appearances this season, Kulusevski is already up to three assists and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Moreover, he’s currently responsible for over 30 per cent of his side’s key passes and expected assists, highlighting his importance to D’Aversa.

In the most recent international break, the young forward played as a striker in U21 Sweden’s 5-0 win. From a central position, Kulusevski punished the Icelandic defence, continuing his impressive form and notching a brace. In the past, he also represented Macedonia at the youth levels but eventually chose Sweden.

Currently, Parma sit in 12th place on nine points and will be taking on Genoa after the international break comes to a close. I Grifoni have struggled this season and will be a good opportunity for Kulusevski to keep the positive streak going.

Beyond this season, Kulusevski appears primed for a return to his parent club Atalanta and join Gasperini’s free-scoring side. Given his qualities, the young Swedish international seems a match made in heaven with Gasperini.

As it is the case for any young talent, it’s all about maintaining this level of play beyond a few games. If his recent displays are anything to go by, it shouldn’t be a problem for Kulusevski.

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On the Rise: Gaetano Castrovilli

Every Serie A season a new wave of talents break onto the scene and steal the headlines. This season has been no different as countless youngsters have staked their claim to make a name for themselves. Fiorentina’s Gaetano Castrovilli is one of these players. Making the most of his regular minutes under Vincenzo Montella, the 22-year-old has now established himself as a key member of la Viola’s eleven.

Typically fielded as a mezz’ala (outside of the midfield three), Castrovilli is able to make the most of his enterprise and drive his team forward. Currently, the midfielder’s 2.6 dribbles per game is the fourth most in Serie A and is a clear sign Montella turns to him to progress the ball in the midfield. 
When he’s not driving with the ball at his feet, Castrovilli has proven to be a willing runner without it. In many ways, his game is eerily similar to that of Juventus legend Claudio Marchisio. He’s at his most dangerous making late, unmarked runs into the box and has proven to have a knack for being at the right place at the right time.
In possession, the Fiorentina man is equally as impressive and plays positively whenever given the chance. Castrovilli is currently averaging 1.4 key passes per game and is becoming a creative threat in the middle of the park. Alongside Milan Badelj and Erick Pulgar, the 22-year-old has carved out a role for himself as the ‘runner’ of the midfield trio, offering industry both in and out of possession. In Badelj, Castrovilli and Pulgar, la Viola currently possess one of the league’s most technical midfield units, capable of covering ground and protecting their defence in the process. 
Most recently, the young midfielder notched his first goal in Serie A in Fiorentina’s 3-1 win over Milan. Castrovilli was excellent against the rossoneri and gave the viola faithful a glimpse of what’s hopefully to come from him.
Considering newly-appointed Fiorentina president Rocco Commisso wants to usher in a new era in Tuscany, predicating the importance of quality and youthful Italians, expect Castrovilli to become a center-piece of his vision. Alongside Federico Chiesa, the 22-year-old can help his side put last season’s woes behind them and kick off a new era. 
Montella has had success with young players in the past and we’re already starting to see his impact on the side. Currently, Fiorentina sit two points out of fourth place having already played Napoli, Juventus, Atalanta and Milan. Moreover, despite the results not always going their way, Montella’s men have looked the better side in most, if not in all, of these games. As their schedule gets easier, expect la Viola to keep climbing up the table with Castrovilli emerging as a key man.
If the 22-year-old is able to maintain this level, a national team call-up shouldn’t be too far away. While Italy’s midfield ranks are currently congested with the likes of Stefano Sensi, Marco Verratti and Jorginho, gli Azzurri lack a true mezz’ala beyond Inter’s Nicolo Barella. Having already qualified to Euro 2020, expect Mancini to experiment and Castrovilli to get a chance with the senior setup.
After all, he’s earned it. 
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Italy 2-0 Greece Euro 2020 Qualifying: The Azzurri player ratings

Italy have done it! After the 2018 World Cup qualifying disaster, Roberto Mancini and his reborn Azzurri have officially qualified for next summer’s Euro 2020 with a 2-0 win over Greece.

Jorginho and Federico Bernardeschi goals sealed a hard fought win over a compact, organized Greece side, making it a perfect 7 wins from 7 in Group J play.

Here are the player ratings for the Italians. Continue reading

Italy boss Roberto Mancini spoiled for choice in the midfield

The biggest talking point in Italy camp this international break is, ahead of two Euro 2020 qualifiers, how a berth can be achieved in this round, and with two matches to spare.

Since day 1 on the job for CT Roberto Mancini after the sacking of Gian Piero Ventura, clinching a spot in this tournament was deemed the first step in the Azzurri’s restoration project towards a revival to reclaim what was once theirs – a seat at the adult table with the world’s powers.

Sitting comfortable and cozy atop the Group J table with a perfect 6-0 record, the Italians have been elevated all over the pitch through some impressive performances, though it would be remiss to not hone in on the special happenings which lie in the midfield. Continue reading

Lorenzo Pellegrini: Fonseca’s Mister X

Since Paulo Fonseca has taken over in the nation’s capitalit’s been clear he’s actively trying to implement his possession-based football from day one. In many ways, the former Shakhtar Donetsk man has succeeded as Roma are among the highest-scoring sides in the league and have looked lethal in the final third. While their defence has left a lot to be desired, their offensive impetus is a good starting point for the giallorossi. Fonseca’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation has since given Roma’s forwards newfound freedom in the final third.

Lorenzo Pellegrini is but one of many benefactors of the managerial change in Trigoria and has seen his importance grow within the side. Initially used on the left of Fonseca’s double pivot, the former Sassuolo man has since been shifted further forward as the side’s number ten. After all, his creativity and vision were wasted deep in midfield.

From the trequartista position, Pellegrini is able to make the most of his range of passing and intelligent movement to hurt the opposition. In his side’s most recent game, the 23-year-old put on a passing clinic against his former side, registering three assists in Roma’s 4-2 win over Sassuolo.

While he begins games centrally, the midfielder has no issues interchanging positions with Nicolo Zaniolo in wide areas, giving the opposition no reference point. From wide positions, defences often forget about him until he makes a late, darting run. In Italy’s most recent qualifier against Finland, Pellegrini started the game at left-wing and simply put, did a job, highlighting his versatility.

Moving forward, expect Fonseca to continue deploying Pellegrini higher up the pitch, especially considering he has no shortage of options for his double pivot. With the 23-year-old’s mobility, Roma are able to overload the opposition in the final third and make the most of these numerical advantages.

Equally capable of picking apart the opposition with a pass or firing one himself, Pellegrini is the ideal trequartista for Fonseca’s system. As Cengiz Under is out indefinitely, Roma are lacking invention in front of packed defences, something Pellegrini could definitely help out with.

With Zaniolo and Justin Kluivert among others flanking him, it makes for a truly versatile front-line behind the towering Edin Dzeko. Factor in Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s arrival – a player comfortable with playing anywhere across the front-line – and it makes for a truly diverse attacking corps in the nation’s capital. Moreover, given their ability to interchange positions at will, Roma’s attack in full flow will be difficult to stop.

As the giallorossi are set to begin their European campaign against Istanbul Basaksehir and will travel to the in-form Bologna on the weekend, expect Fonseca to keep experimenting with Pellegrini in the final third. Considering he can play just about anywhere, the former Sassuolo man will undoubtedly be a key player for the Portuguese tactician and will be looking to take the next step in his career. If his performance against Sassuolo is anything to go by, Pellegrini is in for a big season with Fonseca at the helm.

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Five takeaways from Italy’s latest Euro 2020 qualifiers

Italy wrapped up their latest set of Euro 2020 Group J qualifiers with a 2-1 victory Sunday evening over second-place Finland, with Ciro Immobile putting away his first goal for the Azzurri since September 2017 and Jorginho converting the decisive match-winner from the penalty spot.

With wins over Armenia and Finland, Roberto Mancini’s men maintained their perfect record in the qualifying phase with 6 victories and have moved closer to securing a spot in next summer’s competition.

Here are five takeaways from Italy’s latest matches. Continue reading

Patience Needed With Current Crop of Azzurrini

The U-21 European Championships are unlike any other tournament in world football. Typically, most rosters feature a blend of established talents, your Dani Ceballos’ and Federico Chiesas of the world, mixed with players eager to make a name for themselves on the world stage. What this tournament inevitably leads to, unfortunately for most, is the exaggeration of their talents. While their ability isn’t in question as most of them are, without a doubt, the best their age group has to offer, it’s rare to see an U-21 international push on and live up to the hype, bar a select few. This is no different with the current group of Azzurrini.

While many of them will go on to become established internationals, a majority of them will fizzle out and eventually fade into the background of the hype machine that once proclaimed them to be world beaters. Currently, Azzurrini boss Luigi Di Biagio has one of the most talented group of players at his disposal, yet, it would still be wise to exhibit patience. After all, most of these players are yet to establish themselves as regulars at their respective clubs, for one reason or another.

Take Federico Chiesa, for example. After breaking out onto the scene at Fiorentina, the winger is now seen as the future of Italian football. His electric performances against Spain and Poland have pushed him further into the limelight of the nation, and have now burdened him with immense expectations. Recently, it’s been reported that the new Fiorentina brass have slapped an 100 million euro price-tag on the young man. Remember, he’s just 21, and has only just come of his first full season as a regular starter in Tuscany.

For some, this newfound responsibility acts as the catalyst for their progression, while for others, it slowly eats away at them until their talent becomes a thing of the past and they become average, middling professionals. Look at Mattia De Sciglio, who was once dubbed the ‘Next Maldini’. Today, the defender is a reliable fullback, but is the furthest thing from a world beater.

Luckily for Italian football, it appears Chiesa thrives with this pressure on his shoulders and spurs him on to become a better player. You would expect no less from the son of Enrico Chiesa, if we’re being honest. But not every player is like the Fiorentina man. Looking at Di Biagio’s roster, a number of players stick out from the rest: Moise Kean, Nicolo Zaniolo, Alex Meret and Nicolo Barella among others. These players, at one point or another, demonstrated the potential to become world beaters. While getting lost in their hype, it’s easy to forget they’re still teenagers with the world at their feet.

If the past is anything to go by, heaping immense expectations on these teens inevitably leads to failure. For every Alessandro Del Piero that has emerged from the Azzurrini, there is a Domenico Berardi. Italian media loves to sensationalize the current crop of talents, but they would be wise to exhibit caution, and allow these players to become their own men.

Like in anything in life, we must learn from the past and our mistakes not to repeat them. Despite these warnings, and there have been many, Italian football seems dead-set on proclaiming this generation as calcio’s saving grace.

Perhaps it stems from a burning desire to reach former heights, or perhaps there’s something larger at play here; a cultural aspect, of sorts. The need to keep the memories of former greats alive or, on the other side of the spectrum, the need for something new; something better than what we already have. Regardless, Italians are playing dangerous game forcing their talents to skip crucial steps in their progression and expect them to become great overnight. Eventually, it may come back to haunt the current iteration of Azzurrini, as it has so often occurred in years past. As always, only time will tell.

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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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