After watching his Italy side beat Belgium to book their place in the Euro 2020 semi-finals, Roberto Mancini was bursting with pride.
They had not just beaten the world’s top-ranked international team, they had outplayed, outfought them and ultimately destroyed them.
It promised to be a difficult game on paper but Italy made it look so easy. As Mancini said in his post-game interview, it probably could and should have been more.
“We deserved the victory. The lads were extraordinary, and clearly we suffered in the last 10 minutes as we were really tired, but we could’ve scored more goals earlier,” the coach told RAI Sport.
“I didn’t see 25 minutes of struggle at the start. There were chances at both ends, it was an open game. We only struggled in the last 10 minutes when Belgium started playing a long ball game.”
To accuse Belgium of playing long-ball football, when they have pass masters Kevin De Bruyne and Youri Tielemans in midfield and the invention of Thorgan Hazard and Dries Mertens further forward, was audacious to say the least.
But it was true. Belgium ran out of ideas and energy after having the life sapped out of them by the Azzurri.
Romelu Lukaku has rarely had a quieter game as the indomitable duo of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini took it in turns to drop the striker into their pockets. He hardly had a sniff.
For Italy, the fairytale continues after a brilliant tournament. In all honesty, no one had picked them as one of the teams to make it to the last four. But then again, nobody expected France, Portugal and Germany all to crash out before the quarter-finals.
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International tournaments can be full of surprises. Only those who followed Italy’s rise over the past 18 months would know their run to the semi-finals has been a long time coming.
Considering Italy’s rich history as a footballing nation, their lack of international progress over the past decade has been disappointing.
They won the World Cup in 2006 on penalties but with Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero and Andrea Pirlo just some of the stars in their squad, that felt almost inevitable. At Euro 2012, with a far less talented squad, they fell at the final hurdle to Spain.
The humiliation of their 2014 World Cup group stage exit was almost too much to bare, while Antonio Conte did a fine job to guide them to the semi-finals of Euro 2016. Their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, though, was the last straw.
Mancini came in as a respected coach to replace Gianpiero Ventura who had won titles with Inter Milan and Manchester City and that certainly helped. He used his experience and knowledge of the national pool to put together a squad mixed with creative talent and energy.
What has followed is an extraordinary run that no one could have predicted, perhaps not even Mancini himself. He experienced a tough start to life as Italy boss, going five games without a win.
But after beating Belgium, Italy are now 31 games unbeaten — a run that stretches back to September 2018 when they were beaten 1-0 by Portugal in the UEFA Nations League.
Not only has Mancini found a way for Italy to score goals — they have averaged 2.5 a game in his time in charge — they have kept them out too, shipping only 16 goals in Mancini’s tenure.
Historically-speaking, Mancini is Italy’s best-ever. No manager in Italy’s history has a higher win percentage than him. Not even the great Arrigo Sacchi or the World Cup-winning coach Marcelo Lippi.
Granted, on the all-time list he has only managed the ninth-highest number of matches with 37. But he has only lost twice — and such a record represents a huge improvement from the days of Cesare Prandelli and even Conte.
The manner in which Italy cruised through the group stage at Euro 2020 was electrifying. They blew away a dreadful Turkey side 3-0 and overcame a stubborn Switzerland team, who later knocked out France, by the same scoreline.
Even if their clash with Wales finished 1-0, it could have been a great deal more. They were never troubled by the Welsh and merely confirmed their dominance by finishing top of the group.
That shut-out in Baku confirmed their status as the national team’s best-ever backline, keeping 12 consecutive clean sheets — a remarkable achievement. But even if they manage to keep out the opposition, they are far from boring.
Mancini has made Italy a joy to watch again. Long gone are the days of ‘catenaccio’ or playing for 1-0 wins: this is total football. High lines, one-touch passing, counter-pressing and marauding full-backs.
It is even more impressive considering the limited time he and his coaching staff have to work with the players and former Azzurri coach Conte praised Mancini’s side for creating an identity.
“You don’t go undefeated for 31 games by chance,” he said. “Compared to my Italy in 2016, there are similarities: the most important common point is that we are talking about two teams with their own balance and their own game identity.
“Then, you can play with 3-5-2 like I did or with 4-3-3 like Mancini does. It depends on the characteristics and quality of the players, but what is essential is to always give an idea, a structure, a DNA.”
His brand of football has made seemingly average players such as Leonardo Spinazzola, who was dumped by Juventus only 18 months ago, look world-class. He is squeezing the maximum out of talented midfielders such as Nicolo Barella and Federico Chiesa, who are enjoying their football.
Even the old stalwarts Bonucci and Chiellini have been key at the heart of their backline despite their combined age of 70. Ciro Immobile, who turns 32 on his next birthday, has covered every blade of grass with a youthful exuberance.
There were some hints of weakness in the last-16 knockout round against Austria and their semi-final opponents Spain will take note. Italy seemed to struggle with the aerial prowess of Sascha Kalajdzic late on and Marko Arnuatovic’s header was only ruled out due to VAR. Had things gone a different way, Italy might not be at the tournament.
But they deserved such luck and Mancini will be hoping for more as he returns to the happy hunting ground of Wembley, the stadium where he won the FA Cup with Man City back in 2011.
Mancini still believes there is more to come from his side and that will become apparent as they go up against the tournament’s top scorers Spain, who have found the net 12 times in their five matches.
“The team has progressed game in, game out,” he said. “Even when there have been tricky matches, the team has always got better – and there is still room for improvement.”
Even if his side suffer defeat, there will be some pride about how Mancini has created this sense of belief and confidence within the squad and the nation.
After years watching other nations have their turn in the spotlight, Italy are back where they belong.