As Italy embarked on UEFA Nations League matches over the weekend, it was the first time that new boss Roberto Mancini had overseen competitive matches for the Azzurri. Italian sports newspapers Corriere dello Sport and La Gazzetta dello Sport wished him luck in his endeavours, as his new-look squad sought to overcome the outright disaster of having failed to qualify for World Cup 2018 under previous Coach Giampiero Ventura.
The new Commissario tecnico has spoken of a desire for positivity, to play on the attack and without fear, a factor that was sorely missing in those ill-fated World Cup qualifiers.
What follows is a look at the makeup of the 31-man selection, and an introduction to some new and more familiar faces.
With veteran Gianluigi Buffon seemingly out of the picture, the number one slot is very much up for grabs between Milan stopper Gianluigi Donnarumma and Juventus backup Mattia Perin. This provides a conundrum for Mancini, the latter arguably more dependable but currently without regular first-team football while Donnarumma continues to make mistakes for Milan but still commands a slot in the Rossoneri XI.
Torino ‘keeper Salvatore Sirigu joins them for some much-needed experience, and a first call for 24-year-old Alessio Cragno from Cagliari proves that “Mancio” is looking beyond just the big teams in Serie A in his selection.
“In terms of integrating with the group, there haven’t been any problems, even those I didn’t know have been very open with the new arrivals,” revealed Cragno in his introductory press conference. “The standard is high here. Donnarumma, Perin and Sirigu have great quality. I’ve just arrived and I’ll look to show I deserve this call-up.”
The centre-back choice is relatively straightforward here, Juventus stalwarts Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci straight into the first-team, backed up by AC Milan duo Alessio Romagnoli and Mattia Caldara with Daniele Rugani just behind them.
“I wasn’t sure if I would return,” admitted Chiellini to a recent press conference. “But the enthusiasm that youngsters bring really pushes you on. In this training camp there is the atmosphere of calm, desire to go forward, to do something new and not look back at the past. You cannot leave the Nazionale. I hope that my presence will never be a problem for this squad.”
At full-back, Mancini has gone for Chelsea duo Emerson Palmieri and Davide Zappacosta – both of whom could benefit from more playing time at club level – and left-sided Domenico Criscito who has already provided two assists from two appearances since returning to Genoa from Zenit St. Petersburg, where he played under Mancini.
Interestingly, the new boss has handed a maiden call for 26-year-old Fiorentina left-back Cristiano Biraghi, whose excellent performances had previously gone unnoticed, and 24-year-old SPAL right-back Manuel Lazzari who was playing in Lega Pro as recently as 2014.
Mancini has lamented the lack of domestic playing time for Italy’s midfielders, but the first name on that list was certainly Chelsea’s Jorginho, who had been ignored for far too long. The boss feels that Roberto Gagliardini (Inter), Bryan Cristante and Lorenzo Pellegrini (both Roma) should have been featured in the first time much more than they have done, but still rewarded their talent with a call-up.
The Coach has been regularly attending Serie A matches since the start of the new campaign, and it shows with the inclusion of midfielder Marco Benassi, the 23-year-old called to the senior Azzurri squad for the first time after having already fired in three goals in two matches for Fiorentina. Joining him are 21-year-Nicolo Barella from Cagliari and Roma’s 19-year-old talent Nicolo Zaniolo, Mancini not put off by the latter having not yet made his Serie A debut as he focuses on youth and the future.
Italy has no shortage of talent on the wing as Federico Bernardeschi, Giacomo Bonaventura, Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa are all no-brainers in terms of selection to the senior side. Mancini’s only problem here is which of them to pick in his expected 4-3-3 setup, and choosing a striker to be backed up by them will be no easier either.
Mario Balotelli was another player whose superb club form was ignored by previous bosses, but he is expected to be the man to beat for the number nine slot, especially as he has worked with Mancini before at Manchester City. Ciro Immobile finished as joint top scorer in Serie A last season and will battle hard for a starting place, as will the extremely talented Torino striker Andrea Belotti.
Further down the pecking order will be Domenico Berardi, who has scored two goals in three appearances for Sassuolo this term, and deserving 17-year-old Pietro Pellegri who has taken to life in Ligue 1 with Monaco, firing in one goal in just 35 minutes of substitute action this season.