Italy and Mancini are set to cruise to Euro 2020. Just don't ask about the green shirts
Perhaps it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to hear Roberto Mancini say "I prefer the blue."
His opinion on Italy's new green shirt, which the team will wear for Saturday's qualifier with Greece -- stream live: 2.45 p.m. ET, ESPN+ (U.S. only) -- isn't necessarily that of a traditionalist. Mancio won league titles as a player in the blue of Sampdoria and Lazio and his greatest successes as a coach came in the same hue at Inter and Man City. Superstition is the way.
"We'll see what it looks like on the pitch," he smiled. "It's a bit strange."
Returning to the Stadio Olimpico for the first time in four years, greying fans of a certain vintage will maybe remember the time Italy last played in green here. It happened just once in 1954: a friendly against Argentina. PUMA are calling it the "Renaissance Kit" and whatever you might think of it, the launch it certainly captures the zeitgeist around Mancini's Nazionale.
Designed to appeal to a new generation, this is very much the Italy team of that generation. Eleven of the players in the squad are 25 or younger and Mancini will call up one or two from the Under-21s once Thursday's qualifier with the Republic of Ireland is done and dusted. Dialling up the "linea verde" ("the green line") is one idiom Italians use when youth is being invested in and Mancini hasn't put the phone down in his year in charge.
This weekend, Italy will book their place at Euro 2020 nice and early with three games to spare, as long as they beat Greece and Armenia fail to win in Liechtenstein. The choice of venue is significant. In the event of qualification, Italy will play their first two group games next summer in Rome; Mancini wants the players to get used to the atmosphere. After vanquishing Finland 2-1 in Tampere last month, he said: "The hope is that the Stadio Olimpico is as full as it was during the 1990 World Cup, a time when we were all a little younger."
Currently on a seven-game winning run, matching the streaks of former coaches Ferruccio Valcareggi and Giovanni Trapattoni, this new-look Italian side has completely changed the mood around the national team, regenerating enthusiasm after the massive disappointment of 2018. Sure, as Mancini's predecessor Giampiero Ventura (now coaching in Serie B at Salernitana) has pointed out, their qualification group is an easy one. But Italy laboured and rarely entertained against similar opposition not just under him, but also legendary managers who could call on hall-of-famers in contrast to promising youngsters.
"I wanted a group with Germany, Holland, France and Spain but they didn't give it to me," Mancini cheekily hit back.
His latest squad includes only one debutante: Napoli right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo, whose story is the stuff of fairytales. The 26-year-old has gone from playing in the third division with Matera to the Champions League and now, his country in just two seasons. He is the Moreno Torricelli of 2019.
Nicolo Zaniolo is back after his punishment for showing up late for a training session at the U21 Euros in the summer. Moise Kean, his partner in that tardy crime, is not, however, after a slow start to life at Everton. Currently training with the Azzurrini, it wouldn't come as too big a surprise if he were promoted to the senior squad after the weekend. That said, Mancini has given the impression that the more likely graduate will be Brescia's Sandro Tonali who has yet to debut for the Azzurri but was on the bench last month in Armenia.
Florentines were disappointed that Gaetano Castrovilli did not make the cut after a breakout start to the campaign but his chance will come soon enough. That said, Mancini believes "the squad is more or less set," adding "there are maybe two or three spots up for grabs. If someone all of sudden gets ruled out [through injury] then we'll see but the players going to the Euros are here or have already been called up. If anything, we're a little short on the left-side of our defence. Emerson Palmieri [Italy's main creative thrust in Yerevan] is out. [Roma's] Leonardo Spinazzola has played the last two. [Inter's] Cristiano Biraghi is back [fit] but he isn't playing a lot."
Questions about Italy's problem position, the No. 9 role, ended up getting convincing answers in September. Andrea Belotti scored in Armenia and Ciro Immobile found the back of the net in Finland, the pair of them putting to rest long droughts for an international goal. Friendly rivals for one place in the team, the competition seems to be bringing out the best in the former club teammates. Belotti boasts 12 goals in 17 games for club and country this season, Immobile nine in 10.
It means the striker-less lineup that sparked Mancini's Italy into life this time last year has been shelved as has the Kean-Fabio Quagliarella combo that lit up the Azzurri over the spring. It's up to them and the likes of Mario Balotelli and Patrick Cutrone to persuade Mancini otherwise over the next eight months ahead of Euro 2020.
Out wide, the only guaranteed starter at the moment is Federico Chiesa, who is learning more tricks of the trade alongside Franck Ribery at Fiorentina. On the opposite side, Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne needs to shape up after a poor and bad-tempered start to the season. He's failed to score or assist in five of his last seven appearances and Carlo Ancelotti left him in the stands for the trip to Club Brugge in the Champions League, unimpressed with what he'd seen from his captain in training.
As for Federico Bernardeschi, he has barely played for Juventus this season. He only made his first league start at the weekend and did not match what he'd shown previously in the Champions League against Bayer Leverkusen. One of the novelties of the Greece game could be the repurposing of Bernardeschi in midfield. It would highlight how much Mancini rates the player and underline his efforts to skill up the team as much as possible.
Last time out he used Lorenzo Pellegrini as a nominal left-winger knowing that when Italy had the ball and Emerson or Leonardo Spinazzola pushed up, the Roma playmaker could come inside and occupy something akin to a No. 10 role. Pellegrini ended up getting the go-ahead goal in Armenia and has made it rain assists at club level throughout September. Unfortunately, his foot is now in plaster and he'll be watching from home.
The midfield that seemed written in stone, with Nicolo Barella, Marco Verratti and Jorginho complementing each other brilliantly in last season's internationals, was remarkably being challenged not only by the form of Pellegrini, but also Stefano Sensi, the player everyone's been talking about, who, lamentably, will also be missing this round of games after straining his adductor in the Derby d'Italia.
Injuries aside -- don't forget captain Giorgio Chiellini is rehabbing from knee surgery as well -- Mancini must be encouraged by the range and age profile of the players coming through. He has lifted the gloom around the national team and is imposing his own winning mentality. Ending this qualification campaign with a perfect record will see Italy back among the top seeds and heading into the Euros full of self-esteem and optimism.
As for this weekend, it's hoped the team will play better than they did in September when you could tell they had not worked together for four months and that the Serie A season was only two games old. It was no coincidence that the Premier League-based players and the Torino contingent -- back early for the Europa League qualifiers -- were the ones who stood out.
Saturday's game has been billed as a "mock exam" by Mancini. Italy should pass it in flying colours. Just not the ones we're used to seeing them in.