Mancini's Italy hits the right notes in EURO 2020 opener

Roberto Mancini's Italy produced a sprightly display to thump three goals past Turkey and cruise to a commanding victory in its Euro 2020 campaign-opener.

Italy football team

Italy's players celebrate a goal during their 3-0 victory over Turkey in their Euro 2020 clash on Saturday.   -  Pool via Reuters

There were plenty of expectations from Italy, as one of the host nations, as it kicked off the European Championships -- a year later because of the coronavirus pandemic.

At the opening ceremony in Rome, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli performed an absorbing rendition of Nessun Dorma, making it a tough act to follow for the next performer at the Stadio Olimpico.

But the Italian national team, led by its conductor Roberto Mancini, hit the right notes on the pitch against Turkey. Like past Italian teams, there was a passionate portrayal of the national anthem. But this was a different Italian team.

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This was no catenaccio, bolting its doors and relying on defensive shape and counterattacks to win a game. Italy under Mancini has adopted a 4-3-3 formation, moving away from its preferred 5-3-2 formation. The team plays with an unrelenting high-press, with full-backs pushing into the opposition penalty box, moving the ball at pace with runners in support and squeezing the opponent by retaining possession.

The Azzurri will head into their remaining Group A matches against Switzerland and Wales at the same venue buoyed by a display which delighted the home fans who will crave more of the same.   -  GETTY IMAGES

In the 12 matches against the top 30-ranked nations, Mancini's Italy averages 59 per cent possession. Only twice - against France and the Netherlands - has his team lost out on possession count. These were games during Mancini's first month in charge. Italy,  under Antonio Conte between 2014 and 2016, had a ball retention of 46% in 11 matches against the top 30-ranked teams. His predecessor Cesare Prandelli’s side managed an average possession of 52 and 58 in the 2012 Euro and the 2014 World Cup, respectively. Operating mostly with a five-man defence and Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings in front of them, Italy coursed through to the 2012 Euro final before running into Spain. In 2014, Italy was left chasing the game as it crashed out in the group stages.

In 2018, Gian Pierro Ventura’s failure to get the best out of Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne – the high-profile forwards – resulted in the team failing to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil.

But Mancini, much like he did with Inter Milan and Manchester City, where he devised tactics to make the most of his attacking talents, the goals have been flying for the Azzurri. Since Mancini took over, Immobile has struck seven goals in 15 matches as compared to seven in 32, while Insigne has scored five goals in 19 when compared to four in 25 before Mancini. Since Mancini's appointment in May 2018, Italy has scored 82 goals in 33 matches, averaging 2.48 goals per game – the highest for an Italian manager who has coached more than 10 matches in the post-World War era.

Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne were happy to get on the scoresheet right after, helping the Azzurri score three goals in a Euro game for the first time in their tournament history.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Midfielders Nicolo Barella and Manuel Locatelli provided the energy and bite to compliment Jorginho’s guile in the middle of the park. Every time Turkey looked to clear the ball out or play from the back, they invariably ran into the midfield three. Italy ended with 61 per cent possession with 24 shots, with 11 on target. And midfield maestro Marco Verratti is still to come.

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Turkey held firm by closing out the space for 50 minutes before Italy knocked the door down and ripped it apart. One of the most striking aspects of this team was its pursuit for more goals even after the opening goal which came in the 53rd minute. Full-back Leonardo Spinazolla ran forward in attack at every opportunity to combine devastatingly with Insigne on the left. Spinazolla had 10 touches in the opposition penalty box, while the entire Turkey starting XI managed just nine in the Italian box.

After a disappointing domestic season with Juventus, centre-backs Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, at a combined age of 70, were expected to be found wanting in a high line. The pair withstood the challenge as they headed out aerial balls floated towards Burak Yilmaz and restricted Turkey to just a shot on target. With a 3-0 lead in the final minute, Yilmaz was through on goal with only Gianluigi Donnarumma to beat, but there was Chiellini again, to pull off an inch-perfect last-ditch tackle. He rose to his feet and punched the air in celebration as he soaked in the applause of the 16,000 fans in the arena. This was Italy’s ninth successive clean sheet, which no other Italian team has managed since 1990.

Roberto Mancini

Italy coach Roberto has rebuilt the side after its failure to qualify for 2018 World Cup.   -  REUTERS

"It was important to start well in Rome and I think it's a satisfaction for the public and for Italians," said Mancini. It’s impossible to think of a scenario where Italy will not make the knockouts, where bigger challenges lie ahead. There will be question marks over whether Mancini’s men can sustain this intensity for six more big matches in what has been a physically demanding season. But this win and performance was the right tonic for the morale of a nation that had suffered a lot during the first wave of the pandemic.

"It was a beautiful evening,” Mancini continued. “I hope there are many others, but there are still six more for Wembley."

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