Now that the Azzurri fans have had time to bask in the glory of another major competition triumph, David Ferrini plays devil’s advocate asking if Italy would have won the Euros if the tournament went ahead as planned in 2020.
Roberto Mancini’s squad defeated England via a penalty shootout to clinch their second European title, extending their unbeaten streak to 34 matches. This impressive run of results right here, which began in 2018, well before lockdown restrictions were imposed, was at 14 by June of 2020, the month that the UEFA Euros was originally meant to be contested.
Can you imagine winning all seven tournament matches without Marco Verratti, Leonardo Spinazzola, Manuel Locatelli and captain Giorgio Chiellini? No, neither can I.
Prepare yourself, I’m about to point out about a dozen player variations, based on form and injuries, to the squad that Roberto Mancini would have named in May 2020 had the Euros not been postponed until 2021.
But firstly, let’s consider that undefeated streak and the confidence and belief it brought to the table. Up until June of 2020, the Azzurri were rarely challenged throughout the Euro qualifiers, playing Greece, Bosnia, Armenia, Finland and Lichtenstein.
Italy hadn’t competed against a tougher opponent than Poland, winning 1–0 back in October of 2018. As some England-based football pundits put it, “Italy still hadn’t played anyone.”
Sure, Mancini’s side would have been able to navigate through the group stages, but they simply didn’t have ample time to establish a reputation of being feared which is a necessary component when it comes to winning trophies.
The mister, understandably, hadn’t yet been able to field a consistent line-up. In fact, the only constants throughout EURO 2020 qualification games, all of which were played in 2019, were Gigio Donnarumma, Leonardo Bonucci, Jorginho, Nicolò Barella, Federico Bernadeschi and Ciro Immobile.
Sandro Tonali, with Brescia at the time, was the preferred alternative in midfield. There are doubts as to whether he could have contributed in the same way that Manuel Locatelli and Matteo Pessina were able to.
By June 2021, the undefeated streak was at 27, and to paraphrase Mickey in Rocky II, this “greasy fast Italian tank” looked unstoppable. Mancini’s side had won all eight games in the lead up to the tournament, scoring 25 times while not conceding, and so the fear factor was born.
Comparing form over the past two seasons, Federico Chiesa was still finding his feet until his €60m transfer to Juventus, empowering the lively forward to study superstar Cristiano Ronaldo — a gigantic step up from Fiorentina. The wide attacker let loose for the Bianconeri, scoring eight Serie A goals, four times in the Champions League and the winner in the Italian Cup Final.
Lorenzo Insigne went from a mediocre eight-goal total in 2019-20 to his career-best haul of 19 goals in 2020-21: a clear, distinguishable transition in form and leadership.
Like Manuel Locatelli and Alessandro Bastoni, Domenico Berardi did not take part in the Euro qualifiers, and was not recalled to the national team setup until October 2020. The Sassuolo wide-man ended the last campaign with 17 goals to cement his place in Mancini’s squad ahead of Matteo Politano.
With the extra Serie A season under his belt, Giovanni Di Lorenzo further elevated his status as a versatile defender by completing his second term at Napoli. It’s easy to forget that Di Lorenzo was playing in Serie B prior to the Ventura-Mancini national team handover. Without tournament postponement, Danilo D’Ambrosio and Armando Izzo were the favourites to shadow Alessandro Florenzi.
Leonardo Spinazzola was behind Emerson and Cristiano Biraghi in the pecking order for the left-back role. But the Roma star shone brightly in an underperforming and uninspiring Giallorossi team, making his inclusion obligatory. Spinazzola is now a household name throughout Europe after invaluable contributions in both attack and defence.
Alessandro Bastoni required the extra season to transcend from squad player to regular starter under Antonio Conte. His selection denied Gianluca Mancini and Alessio Romagnoli, and after stepping in to start against Wales, the young Inter defender looks to be in the mix for FIFA 2022.
Jorginho’s last twelve months catapulted Chelsea’s top League scorer into Ballon d’Or calculations after steering his team to UEFA Champions League success. The difference in form and confidence from previous seasons was substantial.
Then we need to take acknowledge injuries. Giorgio Chiellini only played four games for Juventus in 2019-20 after suffering a cruciate ligament rupture. The Livorno-born centre-back would have almost certainly missed the Euros in 2020. Marco Verratti was also unavailable after testing positive just days before the tournament was supposed to begin.
Apart from individual players improving their form at club level, Italy required the extra 12 months to gel as a squad collectively. Mancini and his Sampdoria armada were able to harness the confidence of the extended unbeaten streak and transform it into a fear factor.
Perhaps fate played out the way the Azzurri needed it to — dramatic — just like Germany 2006. Even though they had their backs to the wall in the Final after just two minutes, they believed as England showed fear by sitting deep.
This trophy was won in an odd year, during an odd period of history, clinched away from home in a cauldron full of trepidation, filled to the brim with fearful fans and a frightened opponent. After the blessing of having an extra year to build such a solid squad, Italy fans can enjoy a sixth major trophy.
Forza Azzurri 2021.