Two years ago this week, the Italian national team hit arguably their lowest moment in their history. One of the most famous footballing countries in the world did the unthinkable and failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
While that particular failure was deemed as a national disaster, it was the pinnacle of a remarkable slump in form for the four-time World Cup winners.
After winning the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Italy had gone out in the group stages at the next two World Cups.
While hopes were briefly rekindled after reaching the final of Euro 2016, they were embarrassed 4-0 by Spain. The days of Fabio Cannavaro, Luca Toni, and Francesco Totti felt far in the past – but even that paled in comparison to the loss to Sweden in the World Cup qualifier play-off.
However, two years after that national embarrassment, the Italians have their groove again under iconic manager Roberto Mancini.
Since taking over in May 2018, gli Azzurri have since qualified for the European Championships without breaking any sweat. They were one of the first teams to qualify for the continent-wide competition and one of only two teams - Belgium being the other - to do so with a 100% record. Following a comfortable 3-0 victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina on Friday night, they have nine wins from nine.
Ahead of their first major tournament appearance in four years, we see how Mancini has got his national team ticking again.
Strength in numbers
One of the Azzurri’s key attributes over the past two years is a strength in depth across every area of the pitch. Not since their World Cup-winning campaign have Italy had such so many quality options to call upon.
The attacking options that the four-time World Cup winners have at their disposal is so strong that young prodigy Moise Kean - formerly of Juventus now at Everton - is struggling to find a way into Mancini’s senior squad.
In the centre forward position, Mancini can call upon Ciro Immobile for goals, who has a stunning 14 goals in just a dozen Serie A matches so far this season.
Immobile’s task to lead the Italian front line is shared with Torino forward Andrea Belotti, who has seven Serie A goals already this term. Mancini is not short of options for his number nine spot.
The Italy manager can also surround Immobile or Belotti with creative attacking wingers which create a devastating front line.
This includes Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne, the ever-reliable Stephan El Shaawary and the two Federicos - Bernadeschi and Chiesa - both two-footed wingers capable of playing on either wing, which symbolises the flexible front line that Italy possess.
In midfield, the Azzurri’s options are just as exciting. Either side of Jorginho can be Inter Milan’s Niccolo Barella, who has excited Italian domestic football since his loan move from Cagliari, and Nicolo Zaniolo, who won Serie A Young Player of the Year while playing for Roma last year.
| GOAL! |
Take a bow, Nicolo Zaniolo
Chop back, dummy to sit defender and goalkeeper down, dinked finish over the pair of them...
Roma lead 3-0! pic.twitter.com/O06rYQAx0t— Eleven Sports (@ElevenSports_UK) December 26, 2018
And Italy’s squad look even stronger when you consider they have the likes of midfield trio Stefano Sensi, Marco Verratti and Bryan Cristante, as well as forward Domenico Berardi - the Sassuolo winger who has seven goals in nine appearances so far this season - to come back from injury.
Trust in youth
Beyond the obvious quality they have throughout the pitch, which also includes a reliable defence with the likes of veteran stalwarts Giorgio Chellini and Leonardo Bonucci to call upon, Mancini has begun to bleed young talent into his new-look Italy side.
In the 29-man squad they selected for their final two European Championship qualifiers, only 11 are over the age of 25.
One of the more exciting young products is Brescia midfielder Sandro Tonali, 19, who is redefining the regista role that Andrea Pirlo made his own in the Italian national set-up.
But aside from stars like Tonali and 20-year-old Zaniolo are more young prodigies waiting to break through.
In October, Mancini identified a number of stars of the future, including young forwards Andrea Pinamonti of Genoa and Fiorentina’s Riccardo Sottil, who are now regular features in Serie A sides and who will hope to take the mantle from Immobile and Insigne in the near future.
Mancini also revealed plans to induct Ascoli winger Gianluca Scamacca into the senior set-up in the coming years; he has three goals in his last four games for the under-21 side.
The current buzz that exists around the national team today, alongside the plans to integrate the planet's most exciting youngsters, means Italy have the potential to dominate the international stage in the years to come.
This is a stark comparison to the recent past. On the opening day of the 2018/19 Serie A season, the first after Mancini’s appointment, just 38% of players featuring in the country’s top-flight were Italian.
Teams like Napoli, Inter and Juventus put out over a dozen foreigners in their match squads that day. Then-deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini – a right-wing populist – publicly criticised the Serie A clubs for not getting the best out of their homegrown youngsters.
But a little over a year later, Mancini has helped develop a national team system which the country can be proud of again.
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Sam Blitz is a football writer based in London. Having lived in England, Scotland and Italy throughout his life, he specialises in both British and European football. He has experience writing and producing content for Sky Sports, The Times, MailOnline along with his work for the FourFourTwo magazine and website.
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