By Alasdair Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - The thought of a new World Cup qualifying campaign starting might bring traumatic memories flooding back in Italy.
The four-time world champions’ last attempt to reach the competition ended in a play-off defeat to Sweden in Nov.2017, their first failure to qualify in 60 years.
It resulted in the departures of manager Gian Piero Ventura and federation head Carlo Tavecchio, not to mention public fury and embarrassment at such a humiliating failure for an international football institution.
But this week Italy begin their journey to Qatar 2022 with a vibrant and in-form team, thanks to manager Roberto Mancini’s successful rebuilding of the shattered foundations he found after taking the daunting job in May 2018.
FAITH IN YOUTH
Mancini has successfully rejuvenated the Azzurri team and goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma (22), midfielder Nicolo Barella (24) and winger Federico Chiesa (23) are now regular starters.
The next generation has been given plenty of opportunity; Mancini named 12 players aged between 21 and 24 in his squad for this week’s triple-header against Northern Ireland, Bulgaria and Lithuania.
Italy even produced a special green ‘renaissance’ kit in October 2019, which they said was “designed to celebrate the numerous young talents who are taking increasingly important roles in the Azzurri’s successes.”
Experienced players such as Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are still involved, but Mancini has succeeded in looking to the future while improving his side’s results.
To say Mancini has improved results is an understatement. The Azzurri are on a 22-match unbeaten run, and they’ve won 17 of those games.
Their qualifying campaign for Euro 2020 was hugely impressive, as Mancini broke a record held by double World Cup-winning manager Vittorio Pozzo since the 1930s by leading Italy to 11 consecutive victories.
They qualified with three games to spare – another record – and won all their games, finishing with a goal difference of +33 that only Belgium could better across all qualifying groups.
In the subsequent UEFA Nations League, Italy were unbeaten as they topped a group featuring the Netherlands, Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina to secure a place in October’s finals, which they will host.
Settling on a formation and style of play that gets the most out of his players has been key to Mancini’s success.
Italy use a 4-3-3 formation, with two playmakers in midfield, usually Jorginho and Marco Verratti, supporting two wingers who like to cut inside and full-backs bombing on to offer width.
The system helps Italy dominate possession, while their famous defensive discipline has not been sacrificed; Mancini’s side conceded six goals in 16 games in their Euro 2020 and Nations League campaigns.
However, the striker role remains the biggest unknown, and former Italy forward Mancini is yet to settle on his first choice.
Lazio’s European Golden Shoe winner Ciro Immobile has struggled to replicate his club form on the international stage, while Andrea Belotti of Torino is yet to convince as an alternative.
They’ve overcome the problem so far by spreading the load, with 19 different players scoring during Euro qualifying as Italy produced a run of form that has left a clear message: the trauma of the play-off defeat to Sweden has been put behind them.
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie, editing by Pritha Sarkar)