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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Mancini has been rewarded for being brave, but can he integrate his young stars?

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Let’s be honest, sayings and proverbs just sound so much better in Italian. They come of as more profound and musical when you hear them, but the one thing they share in common with their English versions is that they also tend to be true. The one on “La fortuna aiuta gli audaci” (luck helps the brave) certainly applies to Roberto Mancini’s tenure as the Azzurri manager so far.

 

 

Upon taking the job, Mancini stated that he was hoping to see Serie A clubs give more space to young Italian players at a time that we saw more and more foreigners starting in the Italian league. But as an other saying teaches us “if you want something done right, you just have to do it yourself”.

 

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Usually a hot prospect earns a call up to the senior Azzurri squad after he made an impact at professional level, but instead Mancini decided to take matters in his own hand by selecting Nicolo’ Zaniolo to the Azzurri senior squad even before he appeared in an official match at Roma- shortly after the former Inter prospect made his professional debut at the Santiago Bernabeu and the rest is (recent) history.

 

 

Mancini doubled down on young players by starting Moise’ Kean against Finland last Saturday. When you consider that Kean had already debuted and scored in Serie A and played in multiple Champions League matches at Juventus, you could say this was less bold than selecting Zaniolo, but the stakes were certainly higher since this was the first qualifier for the upcoming Euro rather than just a selection for a friendly.

 

Where Zaniolo and Kean fit into the Azzurri moving forward remains to be seen but their paths will likely be quite different. Beyond showing courage by selecting young players, Mancini has also done another thing very well since becoming Italy’s manager- he’s built a midfield that works while on the surface it wouldn’t appear that the pieces fit.

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Mancini’s predecessor, the loathed Gian Piero Ventura, improvised a new midfield in the key playoff matches against Sweden- while now Italy has an identity in the middle. Mancini went with two playmakers by starting both Jorginho and Marco Verratti, one of Italy’s most talented players but someone who also never really shined on the Azzurri. This combination has worked very well with Cagliari’s stand out player Nicolo’ Barella, a more box to box type player who also has a bright future ahead of him because of his young age.

 

 

It will be interesting to see how Mancini integrates Zaniolo into the mix, because talent wise, Roma’s new star looks to have the highest upside of any player on the Azzurri. In the past few months the former Inter prospect has been tried as a winger, but while it isn’t a particularly large sample size, playing in this role doesn’t seem to get the most of his talent.

 

 

Mancini could decide to sacrifice his double playmaker midfielder and bench Jorginho and just go with Verratti, Zaniolo and Barella- three players who on paper compliment each other rather well and could be the backbone of the Azzurri for years to come. Having Zaniolo as a starter would also help offset the lack of a true goal scorer up front since the Roma player appears to be someone who can find the back of the net rather frequently for a midfielder.

 

While Mancini has quite a few intriguing options in the midfield, the attack remains a question mark on the Azzurri and Kean could very well contribute to finding a positive answer. Ciro Immobile has never come close to performing for the Italian national team like he does for Lazio and while Belotti has performed better in 2019, he’s not close to being the player that was compared to Gianluca Vialli two years ago.

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Considering how well he’s played past two seasons, Fabio Quagliarella could be an excellent starter for the Azzurri as they compete to qualify for the next Euro, but it’s hard to envision him being a long term answer. Kean could be an excellent super sub in the interim before eventually becoming the third piece of an attack that also features his teammate Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa.

So far Mancini has been rewarded for being bold and brave, but now he’ll also have to use some ingenuity to integrate his young studs in his current team.

Euro Fantasy League Podcast – #31 – March Roundup – International & Domestic

EuroFantasyPodCover700x300Jamie and Dave are back with March’s edition of the Euro Fantasy League Podcast! We take a look at England, Italy and Spain’s international campaigns thus far and discuss the goings on in the respective domestic leagues, and Dave gets a little bit blinded.

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Mancini Prepares for Liechtenstein Clash

Following their impressive 2-0 win against Finland, Italy have proven they are ready to put their past issues behind them, and finally re-establish themselves as a threat on the international stage, starting with the 2020 Euros. Italy tactician Roberto Mancini has shown he’s ready to give youth a chance, all-while not undervaluing experience.

Today, Mancini held a press conference ahead of Gli Azzurri’s clash with Liechtenstein, and highlighted the importance of establishing an identity for the side, something that was lacking under Gian Piero Ventura’s guidance.

We have to keep growing and look to maintain the same identity as a team, no matter the opposition in front of us. We’re happy with the result: We want to bring back the enthusiasm to the national team, and what better way than through our play. We still have a lot of work to do,” said Mancini in the press conference.

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Since becoming Italy boss, Mancini has introduced a slick 4-3-3 with a highly technical midfield, including two registas in Jorginho and Marco Verratti. In doing so, the former Inter tactician ensures gli Azzurri are able to impose their possession-based game and dominate the opposition.

While results are often the compromise of good football, it hasn’t been the case for Mancini’s Italy, as they have registered four clean sheets in their last four games and have started their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign on the right foot.

I think a team that plays with a determined style of play over a series of games with success could establish their identity,” added Mancini.

Clearly, after Italy’s World Cup disaster and tame displays against Sweden that saw them get eliminated, Mancini’s number one priority was to introduce character. Thus far, he’s had success introducing the likes of Moise Kean and Nicolo Zaniolo while also turning to the experience of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Fabio Quagliarella.

Acting with balance of youth and experience in mind, Italy are playing their best football since Antonio Conte’s tenure, and will likely be a threat at the Euros. With a clash against Liechtenstein on the horizon, Mancini is ready to blood in more players and mix up his starting eleven once more.

“We’ll change 3-4 players from our starting eleven against Finland, perhaps even more,” said Mancini.

According to recent reports, Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli is rumoured to start in defence while Stefano Sensi is set to get a start in the midfield. Romagnoli has arguably been the best defender in Italy this season, and deserves a shot at usurping Leonardo Bonucci in the starting eleven. Sensi, on the other hand, has been in exceptional form for Sassuolo, and is an ideal deep-lying playmaker for Mancini’s 4-3-3 in the absence of Verratti or Jorginho.

Otherwise, Leonardo Spinazzola will start at right back after a string of top notch performances for Juventus while it’s likely that Fabio Quagliarella will get rewarded with the full ninety minutes after an impressive cameo against Finland.

While question marks were raised after Mancini’s appointment, the Italian tactician is proving to have the midas touch so far for gli Azzurri, introducing a clear style of play and identity to the national team for the first time in over two years.

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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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Where now for Claudio Ranieri after Fulham sack him due to dismal run?

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It may well come as very little surprise that Fulham have sacked Claudio Ranieri after just 17 games in charge. The Italian was brought in to keep the club up, but ended up losing 11 of his games.

Fulham look certainties to be relegated now as they are as much as 10 points from safety and Scott Parker has been drafted into the hot seat, where he is in a win-win situation as the club will now prepare for Championship football next season.

But what of Ranieri who will always be remembered for leading Leicester City to a stunning league title in 2016? The truth is Ranieri isn’t the kind of manager known for keeping teams up from relegation. But at 67 he must be nearing the end of a long managerial career which has seen him manage 16 different teams, the national team of Greece over 33 years.

Ranieri of course will always have that special relationship with the Premier League but the league has possibly seen the end of him. As he nears 70 he may be looking for one more big pay day in the Middle East or perhaps with a Russian side, somehow one cannot really begrudge him of it, or perhaps he will go back to his beloved Italy and coach one final time.

What he does come away with is that he was one of the good guys of the coaches and even though his resume is not brimming with trophies like some current managers, he will be keeping good company and of course will always have a lot of respect. That was evident when Fulham’s owner Shahid Khan released a statement about the Italian.

“Claudio Ranieri agreed to my decision that a change was in the best interest of everyone. No surprise to me, Claudio was a perfect gentleman, as always. Be assured he is not solely to blame for the position we are in today. Claudio walked into a difficult situation, inheriting a side that gained only one point in its prior eight matches, and he provided an immediate boost by leading our club to nine points in his first eight matches. Though we were unable to maintain that pace thereafter, I am grateful for his effort.”

In many ways then everything is mutual with Ranieri now walking off into the sunset, his name etched into Premier League history and it will be very interesting to see where the so called Tinkerman ends up at next.

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