As a player Roberto Mancini has never really been able to make his mark in the history of the Italian national team, but as a coach he will have a chapter entirely of his own.
Turning Italy into a chaotic side that failed to qualify for the World Cup as European champions in just three years is a remarkable achievement and Sunday’s victory over England at Wembley showed how Mancini played a key role in the return of the Azzurri. Of course, any victory on penalties like this after the 1-1 game ends after extra time requires some fortune but the 56-year-old has done everything to give his side the opportunity to triumph.
One night when his counterpart, Gareth Southgate, saw many of his decisions backfire so painfully, Mancini made them at the right time. He kept his side cool with substitutions throughout the 120 minutes that impacted the game and turned it to Italy after Luke Shaw gave England the lead in the second minute .
Italy had stabilized after that start, gradually calming the noisy home crowd and ending the first half stronger without overworking themselves. At the start of the second half, Mancini took the initiative by calling on Bryan Cristante for Nicolo Barella in midfield and knocked out center-forward Ciro Immobile for Domenico Berardi.
Berardi stepped into the wide role with Lorenzo Insigne moved from the left to a more central and deep position, and the change made a big contribution to Italy dominating possession. Cristante gave the new structure a more physical presence and a higher level of energy in the central midfielder – and that also helped Italy compete for second balls.
How better prepared was Italy? The numbers can be misleading at times, but on Sunday they were so categorical as to be indisputable. Overall, Italy had 62% possession compared to England’s 38% – at Wembley.
The Azzurri had 20 attempts on goal against England’s six and completed 755 assists against the 341. DEFENSIVE PROOFS
Italy’s defensive prowess is well recognized and the back line led by Giorgio Chiellini is part of this beautiful tradition, but the fact that England only managed a shot on target – their goal in the second minute – also testifies to their structure and discipline. Mancini was not afraid to replace key holders later in the game to ensure they maintain their momentum – a tired Insignia left in the 90th and Marco Verratti gave way to Manuel Locatelli six minutes later.
Southgate’s replacements, or the lack of them, will undoubtedly be scrutinized, but suffice it to say that the England manager’s approach has failed to change the game’s drift towards Mancini’s men. There are the less measurable qualities that Mancini instilled in this team – the courage and determination they showed to beat Spain in the semi-finals, also on penalties, were again evident.
Mancini is the first Italian coach to lead his team to the European crown since Ferruccio Valcareggi in 1968 and did so following a 34-game unbeaten streak. “We’ve come full circle,” Mancini said, reflecting on his three-year turnaround.
Perhaps at the World Cup in Qatar next year, the journey could turn out to be even longer.
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