When Mikkel Damsgaard netted that free-kick against England earlier this week, everyone awaited a reaction with baited breath. It was the first time Jordan Pickford had been beaten and so it was a foreign situation, but the players clearly weren’t phased. Southgate’s men will face an even tougher proposition at the final hurdle as they face Italy with Premier League winning boss Roberto Mancini at the helm. They have experienced a few injuries along the way but they’ve risen out of the pack and to the fore, will they get the job done?
Starting in goal with Gianluigi Donnarumma who has of course recently joined PSG. He came through the Milan academy and quickly became untouchable, but for one reason or another his contract ran down and will ply his trade in France for the foreseeable future. Focusing on the national team though and because of how long his name has been in the mainstream sphere, the fact that he is still so young often gets overlooked. Donnarumma is far and away the number one for Mancini and he is also one of the bookies’ favourites to be named young player of the tournament along with Pedri of Spain and Barcelona.
Italy didn’t concede a single goal in the group stages and it was clear that Mancini had introduced a progressive playstyle that went beyond the traditional Italian stereotype. They have since conceded in every game though which has shown a clear chink in the armour for England to expose. It was an odd set-piece that saw Austria score in extra-time, then Lukaku converted from the penalty spot before most recently, Alvaro Morata beat Donnarumma via his weaker left foot. The Milan man hasn’t exactly been at fault for any of the goals although he maybe could have done better for Sasa Kalajdzic’s header.
Jumping straight from the goal to midfield due to the injuries to their starting fullbacks. Alessandro Florenzi, a new club-mate of Donnarumma’s, was unable to really leave his mark before being ruled out whilst Leonardo Spinazzola on the other side opened many eyes. His Roma side have hardly been inspiring under the departing Paulo Fonseca but under Mancini for the Azzurri he has taken it to another level. An injury that brought him to tears ended his tournament though which will be a relief to Southgate and co, so moving onto the midfield.
The midfield man in question is Serie A winner Nicolo Barella. He has operated well in the middle of the Inter park under Antonio Conte and there has been some clear continuity of this into the national team camp with Roberto Mancini. Along with that of maybe Spain and England, Italy’s midfield three is surely one of the best performing trios at the Euros to date. Even the likes of Matteo Pessina and of course Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli have been very effective when called upon despite not being able to beat Barella, Jorginho and Marco Verratti to the starting spots.
Zeroing in on Barella and the way he reads the game is superb, he is one of those players that knows what he has in mind before he even receives the ball. It was great to watch him and Pedri on the same field in the semi-final given that they are both in the early stages of their career but are both so mature and unfazed at the highest level. Barella uses his body well when playing against taller and more physical players and it will be fascinating to see how someone as direct as Declan Rice fares, the West Ham man loves to get stuck in after all.
Finally then to the third of the three players under the spotlight and it is a man with far more experience than the other two. Whilst Federico Chiesa and Domenico Berardi are relatively new to the international scene in the attacking third, Lazio’s Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne are key for Mancini in terms of managing games. That goal against Belgium, the way Insigne cut in on his favoured right foot and curled beyond a keeper the size of Courtois is trademark of the Neapolitan. He has been doing it at the Diego Armando Maradona Stadium for years. As Napoli captain he leads from the front and at this tournament he, along with Immobile, Locatelli, Pessina and Chiesa is top scorer for his nation.
As previously mentioned, historically Italy are a country that prioritise resolute defending with the ideal that if you don’t concede, you can’t lose. Under Mancini though this has changed drastically with Insigne playing a big role. With Gian Piero Ventura in charge they failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup which was a true embarrassment, especially to a country so enamoured with football. One of the players that was most misused in this horrific and brief stint was Insigne, he was left on the bench with Danielle De Rossi going on instead in the search for a goal in a huge qualifier, a decision that baffled the pair in question as well as the whole country really. This is a completely new era though and Mancini has, in a similar way to Southgate, brought a positive vibe to the dressing room as well as a smart tactical outlay.