ROME (Reuters) – Twelve months after a humiliating 0-0 draw in a playoff against Sweden ensured Italy would miss the World Cup for the first time in 60 years, a repeat of that scoreline against Portugal at the weekend was greeted with far more positivity by the local media.
A year ago, the Corriere dello Sport said the 1-0 aggregate defeat to the Swedes was “an intolerable footballing shame” while the Corriere della Sera warned: “Italian football is about to be battered by an unprecedented storm”.
The failure to reach Russia cost coach Gian Piero Ventura his job and it was left to Roberto Mancini to navigate Italy though that storm and salvage something from the wreck of a failed World Cup campaign.
Since taking over in May, the former Manchester City, Lazio and Inter Milan coach has successfully built foundations for a solid future, while beginning to restore the national team’s tarnished reputation in the eyes of its public.
The goalless draw at the San Siro against Portugal on Saturday was only good enough to seal second place in their UEFA Nations League group, however, and afterwards Mancini described the task ahead of him.
“There’s a long way to go and we are working, trying to renovate the national side with young players and a different tactical approach,” he said.
The new tournament was his team’s first competitive test and while results have not blown anyone away, the performances have been encouraging as Italy avoided relegation to the second tier by finishing ahead of Poland in the three-nation pool.
Scoring goals has been the main problem but not for a lack of trying, and in four games against Portugal and Poland, the Azzurri hit 53 shots, 12 on target, but managed to score just three times.
During Tuesday’s 1-0 friendly win over the United States in Belgium, Italy needed a 94th-minute Matteo Politano strike to seal victory despite boasting 74 percent possession and having 17 attempts on goal.
The numbers are indicative of the style Mancini has implemented, built around a technically gifted midfield who move the ball quickly in a 4-3-3 system, a game plan that has drawn comparisons to Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli and Chelsea sides.
Although the goal drought remains a concern, the general consensus is that performances will eventually yield results.
Gazzetta dello Sport acknowledged the improvement, saying “we can console ourselves with a national team that’s growing, playing well and knows how to fight”, but warned: “In March, we can’t make any more mistakes: the road to Euro 2020 starts.”
Improvement on the pitch has also helped Mancini begin to win back supporters, with 73,000 fans packing out San Siro for the visit of Portugal.
The stalemate saw Italy set an unwanted record of failing to win six consecutive home games for the first time, but the statistic been received as an unwelcome side note rather than a devastating indication of Italy’s fall from grace.
Mancini’s readiness to give youth a chance has provided another reason for optimism.
Juventus’ 18-year-old striker Moise Kean came off the bench against the U.S. to become the first senior Italy international born in the 21st century, while Gigi Donnarumma (19), Nicolo Barella (21), and Federico Chiesa (21) have featured regularly.
Additionally, there have been recalls for Mario Balotelli and Sebastian Giovinco, and surprise call-ups for lesser-known Italians playing abroad such as Vincenzo Grifo of Hoffenheim and Valencia’s Cristiano Piccini.
Mancini’s open-door policy should ensure that no talent is left wasted and once his swashbuckling style starts to produce goals, Italy may finally exorcise their November 2017 demons.
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by John O’Brien)