England vs Italy: A year on from winning Euro 2020, the European champions are in need of a reboot

Italy face England on Saturday night

Roberto Mancini had a mission. “I have a dream, to win as national coach what I couldn’t win as a player — a World Cup,” he said before he was even appointed Italy manager. An unused player in the 1990 World Cup, he fell out with Arrigo Sacchi before the 1994 tournament. Management afforded him a redemptive arc.

Four years later, Mancini remained as ambitious. “Our aim is to win the World Cup,” he said. Then Italy faced North Macedonia, a shot count of 32-4 counting for little in a shock, and they had not even qualified for the World Cup. It might be seen as the hubristic humbling of Mancini, a man who overlooked the footballing cliché of taking each game as it comes. The next game was North Macedonia in a play-off, not Brazil in a World Cup final. Italy lost.

So this is a historic first. In the days of 32-team World Cups, there is no parallel of such a major and sizeable footballing nation missing one tournament, let alone two in a row. Perhaps it casts Italy’s Euro 2020 win in a different light, but while they emulated Greece’s 2004 winners, who then failed to qualify for the subsequent World Cup, a 37-game unbeaten run suggested it was less a freakish triumph than a sign of a more meaningful revival.

Now they play a fifth game in England in 12 months. A tale can be told across them. The first was the Euro 2020 last-16 tie against Austria, won with the aid of managerial intervention: Mancini seemed to possess a golden touch with relatively undistinguished players and Atalanta’s Matteo Pessina got what proved the decisive goal. Then came the semi-final and final, the penalty shootout triumphs that owed much to Gianluigi Donnarumma but which seemed to show Italy’s winning mentality.

Fast forward a year and Italy returned to Wembley for the Finalissima; Euro 2020 felt increasingly distant as Argentina won 3-0 and, after reuniting his continental champions, Mancini disbanded them. The Nations League may serve as a World Cup warm-up for many another, but not Italy, so Leonardo Bonucci, Marco Verratti, Jorginho and Lorenzo Insigne were among those released. Giorgio Chiellini retired and his last experience of a World Cup was getting bitten by Luis Suarez in Brazil in 2014. Indeed, until the 2026 tournament starts, it will remain the case that Andrea Pirlo played in Italy’s most recent World Cup match.

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The current crop are altogether less iconoclastic than the playmaker. They arrive at Molineux with just three defeats in 46 games, some youthful players selected with early thoughts of 2026, some ageing understudies merely filling in for the rested regulars and Leonardo Spinazzola. Roma’s raiding left-back facilitated the Mancini renaissance: he was arguably the player of Euro 2020 until he was injured and while they won the tournament without him, the formula looked less potent.

They feel a team who had that rare combination of chemistry and timing, rather than a great side. Things fell apart afterwards. Federico Chiesa, perhaps the best forward in Euro 2020, had a season-ending injury. Jorginho’s missed penalties cost them a place in the World Cup; a symbolic figure when he came third in the Ballon d’Or voting, his summer of 2021 felt a Faustian pact. Donnarumma had a decidedly mixed first year at Paris Saint-Germain. Insigne, the creator in chief, seemed to abdicate by agreeing to leave Napoli for Toronto. Euro 2020 looks an Indian summer for Italian centre-backs, the ageing duo of Chiellini and Bonucci.

Now Italy need to a reboot: another. Failure to reach the last World Cup was attributable to the mediocrity of a manager, the overpromoted Giampiero Ventura. That Mancini emulated him stemmed in part from draws and spurned spot kicks and Aleksandar Trajkowski’s winner for North Macedonia. It may have shown that Italy were reliant on a relatively small core; that they won Euro 2020 when the stars aligned, when the continent’s most talented team – France – failed, when the side with home advantage and the lead in the final could not see the job through. Yet 13 European teams will go to the World Cup and the European champions are not among them.

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They may have some hope for the future. Alessandro Bastoni could be the heir to Chiellini. In Lorenzo Pellegrini, Manuel Locatelli and Nicolo Barella, they have a trio of midfielders in their mid-twenties. A youthful AC Milan team won Serie A, albeit with a squad largely populated by imports.

But while Jose Mourinho can tout Roma’s feat in winning the Conference League, Serie A has provided no Champions League quarter-finalists in the last two seasons. Perhaps it makes the Azzurri’s triumph still more of an outlier. Now they top group A3 of the Nations League. It is scarcely the achievement Mancini had in mind for 2022.

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