Italy have come a long way from the tears and anger of their World Cup qualification failure.
Gone are the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Daniele De Rossi, who both retired from the national team in the wake of their play-off defeat to Sweden back in November 2017.
So too is the mediocrity of their hapless former manager Gian Piero Ventura, who was replaced by Roberto Mancini as the Federcalcio sought a fresh start.
These days, the Azzurri look very different indeed.
For one thing, Mancini’s squad for their opening Euro 2020 qualifiers was filled with youthful talent, with five of the players on his 29-man list aged 22 or younger – including teenagers Moise Kean and Nicolo Zaniolo.
The young duo were thrown into the mix for their first match against Finland on Saturday, and were joined by Chelsea target Nicolo Barella of Cagliari in the midfield, all the while being shielded by the ever-improving Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal.
And while Italy were far from convincing in the clash at Udine, there was certainly lots to be optimistic about.
With a midfield-three of Barella, Jorginho and Marco Verratti, Italy were able to control the middle of the park with a sense of style few other teams can boast.
Can you name a more stylish midfield-three in world football right now?
In Barella – who scored the opening goal in their 2-0 win – Italy finally have a versatile box-to-box-style midfielder who can compliment Jorginho’s ‘regista’ role and Verratti’s stunning eye for a forward pass.
Zaniolo is another player to consider for their midfield, although the 19-year-old would probably prefer to play slightly further forward.
At Roma, the teenager is often compared to the legendary Francesco Totti – but aside from playing at the same club, that’s really where the similarities end.
In fact, Zaniolo could become Italy’s answer to Paul Pogba, with his power, technical ability and confidence on the ball already reminiscent of the Frenchman’s early days at Juventus.
But the man very much in the spotlight at the moment is Kean.
The 19-year-old won his first cap for Italy back in November, but it was his second appearance at the weekend that has got the footballing world talking. Becoming the youngest player to start for Italy since 1912, he also became their youngest goalscorer in over 60 years when he netted the second goal.
After the game, Mancini was full of praise for his youngsters, saying: “Kean has quality and enormous potential but it all depends on him. It’s not difficult to see talent in Kean and Zaniolo, so it’s not a risk to pick them.”
The hype surrounding Kean has certainly grown in recent weeks, as he’s begun to enjoy fairly regular game-time for Juventus.
But the buzz begun all the way back in 2016 when he made his professional debut for the club at just 16 – becoming the first player born in the 2000’s to play in one of Europe’s four major leagues.
His improvement this season might have something to do with a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, with the Portuguese superstar seemingly giving him some pointers at Juve’s training ground.
Kean said: “I learn from Ronaldo. In training, I steal his secrets. I always try to be ready and train regularly so that I’m prepared when the time comes. I can only learn from him. I’m just trying to stay ready by training to my fullest.”
But Italy aren’t just throwing away the old and investing fully into the future, as the team is still filled to the brim with experienced heads and familiar faces.
For one thing, Giorgio Chiellini’s international retirement U-turn means Mancini has one of the best defenders in the world at his disposal, and someone with over 100 caps to help the youngsters during this transitional phase.
Euro 2020 will also come around when the likes of Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile are at the very peak of their careers.
Insigne was one of the players who really suffered through Ventura’s stubborn selection policy, with the former manager often leaving the Napoli forward on the bench – a decision that really came to head in their play-off defeat to Sweden.
But these days, Insigne is one the team’s main goal-scoring threats and provides variety to the differing attacking talents of Andrea Belotti, Mario Balotelli, Simeone Zaza and Manolo Gabbiadini.
Immobile remains his manager’s striker of choice though, with the former Dortmund flop currently enjoying another season of goal-scoring form for Lazio.
But the 29-year-old appears to be suffering a crisis of confidence with the national team, having fired blanks in his last ten games for Italy despite often leading the line.
However, he did provide the assist for Kean against Finland and can generally rely on the continuing faith of his manager.
“When a striker seeks the goal, it doesn’t arrive, so it’ll happen,” said Mancini after the game.
“It wasn’t easy for Immobile, as he always five or six players surrounding him. If anything, we should’ve spread the play better to create spaces.”
While the Italians are a long way from some of their age-old rivals on the international scene – notably France, Spain, Holland and England – there’s an excitement around the national team that hasn’t been felt for some time.
A place at Euro 2020 is expected, while any success will be warmly appreciated.
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