Paddy Agnew’s Notes From Italy: Despite 0-0, Mancini’s Italy On The Right Path

It is not often that Italy’s failure to qualify for the final stages of a nations championship competition is greeted with a positive media reaction. Yet, by and large, that was the perception of Italy’s 0-0 draw with Portugal in Milan on Saturday night.   
Italy did not beat the reigning European champions and they did not make the final four, rather Portugal have won the group. However, such was the impressive nature of Italy’s performance for 70 of the 90 minutes, that it was easy to understand just how coach Roberto Mancini could claim after the match that, result notwithstanding, his side are making progress. In the wake of that traumatic elimination from the Russia World Cup finals exactly one year ago, Italy would seem to be on the way back.
How far down the road that comeback will take Italy clearly remains to be seen. What we can say is that the promise suggested by Italy’s emphatic 1-0 win over Poland last month was more than confirmed at the San Siro. It was one thing to go to Poland and dominate a game but quite another to utterly eclipse the reigning European Champions for a first half in which the possession count registered 73-27% in Italy’s favour.
As a player, Mancini was nothing if not an inspirational, outrageously talented striker. In partnership with the more rugged Gianluca Vialli, that talent helped guide “little” Sampdoria to a Serie A league title back in 1991. Mancini’s Italy begins to reflect his core values, with a defence which lines out across the halfway line and with a gifted, creative midfield composed of Italo-Brazilian Jorghino, Cagliari revelation Nicolò Barella and the Paris Saint Germain playmaker Marco Verratti.
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With Gigio Donnarumma in goal and with Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini (collecting his 100th cap against Portugal) in central defence, Mancini’s Italy looks more than watertight. For the time being, there are “only” two problems. Firstly, against both Poland and Portugal, the side did not seem to last out the full 90 minutes even if that observation has to be qualified by pointing out the obvious – namely, that no side could dominate a game for 90 minutes in the emphatic manner of Italy’s first 45 minutes.
The other reservation about Mancini’s Italy, thus far, is obviously much more serious, namely goalscoring. So far, his Italy have scored just seven goals in eight games. Experienced observers such as former Italian coach, Roberto Donadoni, and former Fiorentina and Portugal striker, Nuno Gomes this week suggested that this was not a problem. It was just something temporary. Nine times out of ten, their domination and the chances created would be translated into goals. Not so on Saturday night.
With a wry smile, Mancini confessed this weekend that apart from “that little problem”, he was more than satisfied with his side. Mancini even feels, and the evidence would sustain his thesis, that his side has progressed much faster than ever he could have imagined and is now clearly on the right path. However, he does concede that that the failure to score goals is “not a detail that can be ignored”.
Mancini’s problem is that the central strikers who might have “delivered” for him, players like Mario Balotelli, Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile, have temporarily gone absent without leave. Balotelli seems to be in another of his occcasional periods of ontological doubt, Belotti is slowly regaining his best form after injury, whilst the in-form Immobile, who has scored eight goals in Serie A so far this season, played well but missed his chances against Portugal on Saturday night.
Against the USA in a friendly in Genk, Belgium tonight, Mancini may well be tempted to experiment, especially up front, using strikers such as Inter’s Matteo Politano, Sassuolo striker Domencio Berardi and Udinese striker Kevin Lasagna, three guys who between them have six caps. Between now and the start of the qualifying groups for Euro 2020 next spring, Mancini may also be tempted to further experiment with Leonardo Pavoletti of Cagliari, Patrick Cutrone of AC Milan, Moise Kean of Juventus and Pietro Pelegri of Monaco.
Another interesting pick against the USA could be the much-heralded, 18-year-old Brescia (Serie B) and Italy U19 midfielder, Sandro Tonali, a player who could yet become a serious bone of contention between Inter and Juventus as both move to sign him. With Chiellini, Insigne, Florenzi, Verratti and Immobile all excused duty against the USA and with Lorenzo Pellegrini unavailable through injury, experiments will inevitably be the order of the night in Genk. 
Some of these experiements, especially in attack, may provide solutions. An in-form Italian striker who can score when it matters will surely, sooner or later, materialise. For now, the important thing is that, whoever that striker is, he will be stepping into a team which seems more than capable of providing a quality/quantity service up front not seen in an Italian national team for a long time.
Remember, too, that after Gian Piero Ventura’s disasterous failure to qualify for Russia 2018, pundits were suggesting that it could take years to get the national team back on track. At this stage, though, it looks like Mancini has turned things around in a matter of months (he took over in May of this year). At the very least, it is a case of so far, so good.
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