WHEN Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, one of the great footballing nations was in a state of full-blown crisis.
Fast forward three years, however, and the collapse of Gian Piero Ventura’s side looks like a blip rather than proof of anything more endemic.
Italy haven’t just made to the Euros, they will head into tonight’s tournament opener against Turkey as one of the favourites to lift the trophy.
Much of the praise for the rapid transformation must go to former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini, who has ripped up some of Italian football’s sacred historical mantras and remodelled his side into an effective modern international footballing outfit.
Yes, this Italy team still knows how to defend. How could it not with a defensive core of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci?
But whereas previous Italian sides viewed defending as their raison d’etre, Mancini’s team press high up the field and regard their backline as a means of stifling the opposition in order to launch lightning-quick attacks.
The dark arts are still there, but Mancini has mixed them with a sprinkling of attacking magic.
The results have been stellar. Italy recorded a perfect ten wins from ten in qualifying – albeit in a weak group that pitted them against Finland, Greece, Bosnia, Armenia and Liechtenstein – and headed into their warm-up matches on the back of a 25-game unbeaten sequence.
With Chelsea’s Jorginho sitting in front of the defence, Mancini feels emboldened to play with five attacking players in most matches.
The hugely talented Marco Verratti links defence with attack, enabling the likes of Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne to push forward in support of established central striker Ciro Immobile.
Having turned 31 earlier in the year, this is likely to be Immobile’s final opportunity to really make his mark on a major tournament, and he heads into the Euros on the back of an impressive season with Lazio that saw him score 20 goals in 35 Serie A games.
The draw has been relatively kind to Italy, pitting them against Group A opponents Turkey, Wales and Switzerland, and the fact that all three of their group games will be staged in Rome should be a huge advantage as they look to settle into the tournament.
If there is a negative, it is perhaps that, outside of the hugely-experienced central defence, this is not an Italian side with a major tournament pedigree.
Mancini has nurtured a new generation, particularly in midfield, and while that has transformed the way his team plays, it means he cannot be certain how his players will respond when the pressure is really ratcheted.
For all that Italy have been on a remarkable unbeaten sequence, they have rarely found themselves lining up against one of Europe’s leading sides.
Nevertheless, they head into their opening group game against Turkey this evening brimming with justified confidence.
“I am proud to be part of this group,” said Barella, a midfielder with Inter Milan. “We can dream big and win the Euros.”
Bold words, but Italy might just be able to back them up.