ROME – For months, Italy’s players have been repeating the same mantra: “Our strength is in the group. We don’t have a single standout player.”
The Azzurri do have a standout coach, though, and Roberto Mancini’s impact in turning around a team that failed to qualify for the last World Cup into a European Championship contender is worthy of praise.
“We play soccer now, as the coach has asked us to, and that’s the thing that has changed most over these last few years under Mancini,” veteran defender Leonardo Bonucci said after Italy dazzled in the second half in a 3-0 win over Turkey in the Euro 2020 tournament opener.
The victory extended the Azzurri’s unbeaten streak to 28 matches — two shy of the team record set under Vittorio Pozzo nearly a century ago — and marked the first time in Italy’s history at the European Championship (39 matches played) that it scored three goals.
“We were already well aware of what a good side we are. We’re very relaxed,” said fullback Leonardo Spinazzola, who stood out with his forays down the left flank. “The coach is able to transmit that day-in and day-out.
“We have it all. Defense, a good midfield, and a quality attack. It’s an incredible mix of qualities,” Spinazzola added after Friday's match. “Some of us are quite technical, others really strong, some have it all. We really have a lot of variety in this squad.”
Mancini pulls it all together in a way that Italy coaches rarely have since Marcello Lippi led the Azzurri to their fourth World Cup title in 2006.
It’s quite a contrast from the previous coach, Gian Piero Ventura, who lost the squad's support during a World Cup playoff loss to Sweden when he left Lorenzo Insigne — considered the team’s most talented player — on the bench.
With Mancini, the more talent the better. Shedding Italy’s “catenaccio” (lockdown defense) past, he wants his team to attack constantly and “put on a show.”
In 82 matches under Mancini, Italy has scored 33 goals for an average of nearly 2.5 per game.
It’s the same attacking spirit that Mancini first showed off when he led Sampdoria to the Serie A title 30 years ago and the European Cup final a year later as a gifted striker.
Forwards, especially, seem to thrive under Mancini.
No wonder Burak Yılmaz ran off the field just before kickoff to embrace Mancini, who coached the Turkey center forward at Galatasaray a few years ago.
Or why Ciro Immobile has finally been able to translate his scoring success in Serie A to the international stage.
Immobile, who scored one goal against Turkey and set up another for Insigne, won the European Golden Shoe award when he matched the Serie A record with 36 goals in 2019-20 for Lazio. He now has five goals in his last six matches for Italy, erasing the memory of his two-year scoreless stretch between 2017 and 2019.
More goals are expected in Italy’s next Group A match against Switzerland on Wednesday. And for the foreseeable future, since Mancini's contract was recently extended through the next two World Cups.
Mancini, who in 2012 coached Manchester City to its first Premier League title in nearly a half-century, commands respect when he explains his scoring schemes to a silent locker room.
“The coach talks really softly,” Immobile said. “You’ve got to have good ears to hear him.”
Immobile and his teammates are listening, though. And Italy is thriving again.
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Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf