Italy must start all over again under Roberto Mancini on return to England for Nations League encounter

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The morning after Gareth Southgate’s bid to end England’s 55-year wait for a major trophy ended in the familiar agony of defeat, Italian daily publication Tuttosport ran the headline: “Siamo Solo Noi”.

“Only us left now”. The last team standing.

As Italy’s fans celebrated “Football Coming Rome”, the England players traipsed back to the dressing room with a losers’ medal around their necks.

But the kings of the old continent will not be at the World Cup. They are perhaps the only noticeable absence, left in Europe for this winter’s showpiece event.

England’s loss was felt deeply after impressing throughout the knockout stage last summer, but Italy’s joy has shifted to despair ahead of the reunion in the UEFA Nations League at Molineux on Saturday.

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Italy have won just four of 12 games since being crowned European champions. While the stakes are nowhere near as high this time around, the meeting in Wolverhampton does present the Three Lions with their first chance to make amends.

Image: Bukayo Saka has overcome Euro 2020 disappointment

A victory for England this time around wouldn’t make up for the crushing disappointment of a shootout defeat on home soil in a major final, but it would certainly be welcomed by Southgate after the lingering criticism of his cautious approach bubbled back to the surface again this week.

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Such a familiar gripe has lurked in the shadows under Southgate – should he play a back three? Should he start Jack Grealish? But these valid observations would certainly be deemed as minor hostilities in the context of their opponent’s alarming plight this weekend.

Italy have made the better start to this nascent Nations League campaign, collecting four points from their two games to lead Group A3 while England sit bottom with just a point from their two matches.

In Munich against Germany on Tuesday, there were signs that Southgate was capable of changing a game with his substitutions, that he was capable of changing the shape, and that England were able to adapt.

Image: Italy celebrate European Championship success

These are part of what we must call “talking points” all with a view of being stored away and brought out for Doha in five months’ time. This Nations League for England is about the bigger picture, an audition for fringe players and even a chance to rest those already on the plane.

Not so for Italy. For Roberto Mancini, there are not pre-tournament games. For Italy aren’t going to the World Cup.

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The question is whether last summer’s success at the European Championships is the anomaly, the outlier or whether Italy’s failure to qualify for back-to-back World Cups is in fact symptomatic of a downward trajectory that has engulfed the Azzurri.

The shootout win over England was heralded as a victory for unity when faced with adversity; Tuttosport splashed with “This is all of us” in tribute to the Italian team pulling together.

Image: Italians celebrate Euro 2020 glory in Rome

The daily La Gazzetta Dello Sport described the country as “exploding with joy” with the triumph as being “too beautiful” and “every Italian feeling like a giant”.

Corriere dello Sport’s editor-in-chief Ivan Zazzaroni even went as far as commenting that “football has returned to its real home” – a dig at England and their unruly supporters who had threatened to ruin the spectacle by entering the stadium through illegal means.

The streets of Rome were awash with Italian flags and flares as president Sergio Mattarella greeted the team back on home soil at the Quirinal presidential palace the day after the dramatic events at Wembley.

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Sky Sports News reporter Kaveh Solhekol described how the Italian newspapers covered the nation’s Euro 2020 triumph over England

But since then?

There has been very little for Italian football to crow about. In October last year, Mancini’s 37-match unbeaten run – a world record – was ended by Spain in the San Siro, a 2-1 defeat in the Nations League semi-finals.

It was a measure of revenge for Spain following their Euro 2020 semi-final penalty shootout defeat, and for Italy it was a first competitive loss in their homeland since going down to Denmark at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples in 1999.

Worse was to come the following month, however.

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The Italian team celebrated with their fans in Rome on an open top bus parade after winning the Euros final at Wembley

Italy just needed one win from two matches to book their place in Qatar, starting with the visit of Switzerland to Rome, but the game would end 1-1 as Jorginho’s last-minute penalty miss ensured the race to finish first in qualifying Group C would go down to the wire.

Northern Ireland then withstood an onslaught of Italian possession to earn a goalless draw at Windsor Park, denying Italy automatic World Cup qualification.

The prospect of the four-time world champions, who were eliminated by Sweden in the play-offs for Russia 2018, missing out on successive World Cups was becoming a possibility, especially when they were pitted in the same path as Portugal.

Image: Italy will not be in Qatar for the World Cup

North Macedonia had to be negotiated first but the Stadio Barbera in Palermo would witness one of world football’s greatest upsets. Aleksandar Trajkovski – a former Palermo player – unleashed a bolt out of the blue to leave Mancini without answers.

It felt like November 2017 all over again following the loss to the Swedes, when Carlo Tavecchio, then head of the Italian Football Federation, described missing out on a World Cup as an “apocalypse”.

At one level, it is simply what the game throws up from time to time; Italy had 32 shots to North Macedonia’s four, and an expected goals of 1.98 to 0.18. But in equal measure, UEFA have made it rather difficult for the big-hitters to miss out on major tournaments; Italy have somehow conspired to do it twice.

Image: Jorginho shows his despair against North Macedonia

It won’t be until at least 2026 that they will feature again at a World Cup having last done so in Brazil – wiping out career highlights for an entire lost generation – Marco Verratti will be 33 having been 21 during the Brazil tournament under Cesare Prandelli.

Theirs is a collective failure borne out of complacency and wastefulness.

Jorginho – third in the Ballon d’Or last year – indeed missed penalties in both matches against the Swiss when converting either would have secured top spot. The forwards who impressed 12 months ago have experienced personal challenges.

Ciro Immobile, who has finished as Serie A’s capocannoniere on four occasions, has scored just 15 goals in 55 appearances for his country. Federico Chiesa suffered a serious ACL injury in January ruling him out for the season.

Image: Italy last featured at a World Cup in 2014

Lorenzo Insigne had thrived under Mancini having failed to fit into Antonio Conte’s favoured system in 2016 nor the playing style of Giampiero Ventura, who inexplicably left the playmaker on the bench as Italy missed out on the World Cup for the first time in 60 years against Sweden.

Insigne embodied Italy’s renaissance last summer with his glittering displays, playing with freedom during the autumn of his career, but the diminutive winger is MLS bound with Toronto FC.

The call-up of Mario Balotelli, now plying his trade with Adana Demirspor in Turkey, in March seemed a sign of desperation. Such a throwback, however, is representative of a deeper crisis that is afflicting the domestic game.

Tavecchio’s successor, Gabriele Gravina, pointed to the dearth of options due to just 32 per cent of Italians playing in Serie A.

Image: Federico Chiesa has been out since January

“There are very few selectable players,” Gravina said during the fall-out to the North Macedonia debacle. “We must understand why so many young players don’t get used by their club teams.”

There was a similar lament towards Italian football’s youth development in 2017, but while European Championship success would follow four years later, Mancini admitted the failure to invest in the future had contributed to the national team’s subsequent demise.

Italy were a distant second best to Argentina during the Finalissima back at Wembley earlier this month, a renewal of the contest between the champions of Europe and South America.

Argentina’s 3-0 margin of victory represented two nations currently heading in opposite directions, with old stalwarts Lionel Messi and Angel di Maria inspired in extending their unbeaten run to 32 matches – now 33 after the 5-0 win over Estonia, four short of Italy’s record.

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Highlights as Argentina beat Italy 3-0 to win the Finalissima at Wembley

Lionel Scaloni’s side look well set for a tilt at ending their 36-year search for a third global crown, but it laid bare in chastening fashion the size of Italy’s rebuild.

This Nations League campaign marks the start of a new era, with Giorgio Chiellini calling time on his international career after his 118th and final cap. There were doubts over whether Mancini would stay on, but the former Manchester City boss has been entrusted with the task of narrowing the gulf to the elite nations.

The process has begun with the likes of Alessandro Bastoni and Gianluca Scamacca, both 23, and 22-year-old forward Giacomo Raspadori making just his fourth start in that Argentina defeat.

The fear is that things may get worse before they get better for Italy, but Mancini has looked to home for inspiration, while warning that the Serie A system must be addressed in order for the country’s most precocious talents to flourish.

“Little has happened in the last four years and in fact we are always the same in the national team,” he said last month.

“The first thing is to give more trust to the coaches like AC Milan did with Stefano Pioli [who won the Scudetto this season]. Two years ago it seemed he was leaving, today he is winning the league.

Image: Italy have started their Nations League campaign well

“Many coaches they don’t let young players play because they are afraid of making mistakes. Being down to 32 per cent of Italian players in Serie A is highly limiting for all national teams.

“Nicolo Zaniolo arrived in Coverciano [Italy’s training base] for the first time and looked like a child, after two months everything has changed. The boys improve quickly.”

Roberto Mancini was hailed as a “magnificent visionary” after landing on the right side of fine margins that summer’s night at Wembley.

But the talent pool is increasingly shallow and further north, in the Black Country, he and Italy must dig deep for answers as they start all over again.

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