IT’S often overlooked that long, unbeaten runs in international football, however impressive they might appear, invariably consist of qualifying phase games against relatively weak nations and calendar-clogging friendlies. Italy, in beating Turkey 3-0 in the Euro 2020 opener, extended their own unbeaten sequence to 28 games, against opponents that were neither makeweight or undeserving of a place in the finals.
Italy were impressive, but we should not be too surprised, even though they created a first in scoring three goals for the first time in the Euro finals! They might have missed out on a place in the last World Cup, but since then, they have reminded themselves who they are and what their role in the game is. Italy is one of football’s blue riband nations and they have a place at the top table. True, they lost their way for a while, but some of the top countries have been through the same experience.
Of Italy’s 28 games unbeaten, 11 have been against teams who are featuring in Euro 2020. Most importantly, Italy have kept 12 clean sheets in 13 matches, demonstrating they have one of their trademark defences installed.
Certainly, Turkey rarely threatened the Italian back line and Gianluigi Donnarumma, AC Milan’s 22 year-old goalkeeper – who is surely bound for the Premier League at some stage – was rarely tested.
Predictability, the pundits in the UK are quick to dismiss Italy, a dangerous practice as they don’t have to possess the very best squad to make an impact. They’ve done it before – in 2012, they reached the final, in 2006 they were World Cup winners when very few anticipated they would reach the business end of the competition. Italy, if they have a cunning plan, can force themselves into contention. You could say that when they are unfancied, they are at their most dangerous.
The armchairs pointed to their unbeaten run “against weak nations” and the age of key players, “when the competition gets into its third week, they will tire”. The “old men” at the back are very accomplished players, fit and clever with the use of their energy.
Giorgio Chiellini, for example, was all over the field, lending a hand up front – his first half header almost gave the Italy the lead – and he also produced a well-timed tackle towards the end that he greeted like a winning goal. He’s classy and the only disappointment is he’s 36 and won’t be around at this level for too long.
Ciro Immobile may be 31, but he’s one of Europe’s most potent strikers. In five years at Lazio (the Stadio Olimpico is his home ground), he’s scored 150 goals in 219 games and has won the Serie A Capocannoniereaward twice in four years. Some say he hasn’t always performed at international level, but against Turkey, he was sharp, brave and he got his goal, a typical poacher’s strike.
And then there’s the diminutive Lorenzo Insigne, another 30-something who scored the third goal for Italy with a move he’d been practicing earlier in the evening. He’s an earnest player, known as Lorenzo Il Magnifico by Napoli fans. There’s even something Zola-esque about Insigne, and not just because he’s only 5ft 4 inches in height. Even at this early stage of the competition, it’s not hard to see him being one of the men to watch over the coming weeks.
It is early days, and optimism always comes with a caveat or two in football, but Roberto Mancini’s Italy team opened Euro 2020 with a welcome swagger. Turkey, for all their effort, didn’t get a look-in. it bodes well for the next few weeks. The 16,000 fans in Rome must have loved it. UEFA’s officials, including that genial chap who conducts the Champions League draws, must have loved it. It wasn’t just spectator sport returning to its rightful place, Italy were also back in the bosom of international football.