Mission accomplished. Roberto Mancini and the Azzurri booked their ticket to Euro 2020 as they trailed Greece 2-0 in a football fest at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Saturday. It was a tougher match than expected for the Italian side, but winning was the only thing that mattered. The Azzurri did so by means of a penalty by Jorginho and a sharp conversion by Federico Bernardeschi.
Concomitant results in the additional European Qualifiers Group J – with Bosnia trampling Finland and Armenia held on to a draw by Lichtenstein – made sure that Italy secured their first place in the pool three games in advance. Never had the Nazionale reached qualification for an international tournament with such ease and anticipation. A proof of the good work done by Roberto Mancini.
The Mancio took a national side on their knees after their brutal elimination on the way to World Cup 2018, and in the space of 18 months raised them back if not to the rank of a European superpower (that is all yet to prove) at least to the level of a national side whose supporters can affectionately cheer for – as the loud 55000-attendance at the Stadio Olimpico showed.
Indeed, the former Sampdoria and Lazio player’s work was made easier by a qualification pool where all opponents’ disappointing performances seemed to cooperate to pave the way to the Azzurri. Roberto Mancini’s merit was thus mostly operating a drastic generational renovation among the Italian ranks: Gianluigi Donnarumma, Nicoló Barella, Federico Chiesa, Moise Kean, Nicoló Zaniolo – to name a few – are all players below 25 years of age.
The future may look bright, or at least as green as hope for the Italians, who set foot on the Olimpico pitch wearing an almost unprecedented green jersey. That’s exactly the message the local Football Federation and their technical sponsor wanted to highlight by having Italy detach themselves from their traditional Savoy blue jersey: The infusion of young blood among their ranks, and the Nazionale’s symbolic “Renaissance” (The new kit is indeed named Rinascimento).
A significant message, and this green shirt looks nice – we’ll give you that. But now, let’s make sure the Azzurri come back to wear azzurro, ok?
Italy grabbed the three points and wrapped their qualification after almost one hour of stalemate. Roberto Mancini lined up his expected 4-3-3 in Roman sauce, with Romanista Leonardo Spinazzola and Laziale Francesco Acerbi in defense, and the dream triad Marco Verratti – Lorenzo Insigne – Ciro Immobile to echo the once stellar Pescara’s lineup from the 2011-2012 Serie B season.
The Hellenic were dealt some pretty poor cards in the latest years. New trainer John Van’t Schip, whom aged Italian calcio fans may remember as a brilliant Genoa winger in the ‘90s, was called to Greece’s deathbed in July to reanimate a national side who had managed to climb to the top of Europe no longer than 15 years ago, but whose run in these Qualifiers had been disappointing to say the least.
All the Dutch coach could do was parking the bus in front of goalkeeper Alexandros Paschalakis and hoping for some counterattack to catch the Azzurri’s defense by surprise. Which is exactly what risked happening in the 12th minute, when PAOK’s Dimitris Limnios’s powerful shot forced Gianluigi Donnarumma to cover his near post and push back his attempt.
The rest of the first half was a rough battle which Russian referee Sergei Karasev controlled by distributing a couple of yellow cards on the Greek side. The only chance for Italy came from a shot by Lorenzo Insigne totally out of target, and Mancini’s biggest problem was the need to replace injured Federico Chiesa with his namesake and former Fiorentina teammate Federico Bernardeschi.
The Azzurri took more courage in the second half and warned the Greeks in the 55th minute with a header by Ciro Immobile from a cross by Danilo D’Ambrosio. The Greek goalkeeper had to dive to his right to push the ball away from target. Dimitris Limnios, the most active on the Hellenic side, gave another scare to Mancini’s troops as he progressed on the right flank and sent the ball in for Efthimis Koulouris, who hit Donnarumma’s side netting.
In the 63rd minute, a shot by Lorenzo Insigne was stopped by Olympiacos midfielder Andreas Bouchalakis with a macroscopic handball. It was a crystal-clear penalty, which Jorginho took care of converting for his second marking from the spot in a row.
A sharp left-foot shot from out of the box by Federico Bernardeschi eventually set the score at 2-0 for Italy, thanks to a deflection by the Greek defense which frustrated Alexandros Paschalakis’ saving attempt.
The Azzurri coach eventually sent in Andrea Belotti, as well as young home starlet Nicoló Zaniolo, much to the delight of the Roman attendance on the stands. It ended with the supporters singing the National Anthem, and Italy claiming back their spot among the international elite.
On June 12th, 2020, the itinerant European Championship will kick off right in this same stadium. The Azzurri will be there.
October 12, 2019 – European Championship 2020 Qualifiers Group J
SCORERS: 63′ Jorginho (pen.), 78′ Bernardeschi
|ITALY (4-3-3): Donnarumma; D’Ambrosio, Bonucci, Acerbi, Spinazzola; Barella (87′ Zaniolo), Jorginho, Verratti; Chiesa (39′ Bernardeschi), Immobile (80′ Belotti), Insigne (Sirigu, Meret, Biraghi, Cristante, Izzo, Grifo, Romagnoli, El Shaarawy, G. Mancini) Coach: R. Mancini|
|GREECE (4-3-1-2): Paschalakis; Bakakis, Chatzidiakos, Siovas, Stafylidis; Zeca, Kourbelis, Bouchalakis (75′ Giannoulis); Bakasetas (80′ Mantalos); Limnios, Koulouris (67′ Donis) (Vlachodimos, Dioudis, Lampropoulos, Siopis, Fetfatzidis, Galanopoulos, Pavlidis, Vrousai, Koutris) Coach: Van’t Schip|
REFEREE: Karasev (Russia)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Chatzidiakos, Koulouris, Bouchalakis (G)