Just in case you weren’t following Euro 2020 qualification too closely, you may be wondering if there were any standout achievers during the often laborious whittling down process.
In short, the answer is a resounding yes.
England qualified with seven wins from their eight games, World Cup winners France booked their place in next year’s finals, Germany, Netherlands and Portugal are through, while Ukraine, Spain
But there has been one team who have stood head and shoulders above the rest since last March, when qualifying officially got underway.
That team is Roberto Mancini’s Italy.
Simply put, the Azzurri have been breathtaking since the back end of last year. 10 wins out of 10 saw them romp through Group J with consummate ease, blowing Finland, Greece, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Armenia out of the water.
In that time, Italy scored 37 goals – unfathomable for a team who inexplicably failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup – and conceded just four times. Only Belgium eclipsed Mancini’s side in terms of goalscoring, and they had the luxury of coming up against San Marino – who shipped 51 goals in their 10 qualifying matches. Enough said on that, you feel.
Under Mancini, Italy have now won 14 of their 20 games, a win percentage of 70%.
His closest adversary in that respect?
So what’s changed under Mancini? Why are things suddenly going smoothly for a team who, not only not missed the last World Cup, have failed to get out of the group stage in the previous two editions.
Well, he’s got a cracking pool of developing youth talent at his disposal for one. Federico Chiesa, Nicolo Zaniolo, Sandro Tonali and Nicolo Barella are just four of a number of outstanding young players blossoming in Serie A, and those talents are now being allowed to flourish on the international stage.
Each bring a different element of youthful exuberance to the Azzurri, intertwining nicely with older and wiser heads like Jorginho and Lorenzo Insigne.
But more importantly, Mancini’s a winner who has an eye for spotting deficiencies and improving things. A coach with a proven record of winning titles – three Serie A crowns and a Premier League title to be specific – he is capable of managing fiery egos, absorbing pressure from above and has been able to implement a cautious, pragmatic approach that breeds success.
He’s done it before at Inter, he’s done it before at Manchester City and now he’s doing it with Italy.
So far, he’s succeeding – breaking Pozzo’s consecutive win record (9) with victory over Bosnia in Italy’s penultimate qualifier, as well as recording the highest number of victories recorded in a single calendar year. To top things, Mancini’s side celebrated that accomplishment by annihilating Armenia 9-1, stretching that winning run to 11 games. In that game, Italy had seven different goalscorers – another record.
After the clash with Bosnia, Mancini admitted he was proud at surpassing that record but recognised Pozzo
“It’s important for all of us to gain experience, as we have a young squad and much to learn, the kind of things you can only learn by playing at a high level.
The other positive for Italy is the amount of quality players they have to choose from.
For more from Toby Cudworth, follow him on Twitter!