Aside from two very familiar faces at the defense center, this isn’t the Italy we’re all used to. Manager Roberto Mancini had promised daring and risk-taking as well as the traditional Italian football culture of work ethic and patience. His team kept their word in the opening game of Euro 2020 and outlasted Turkey 3-0 after a goalless first half – for the first time Azzurri have ever scored three times in a European Championship game – and extended their unbeaten streak to 26 games in an emotional night in Rome.
What this Italian squad lacks in A-list superstars in their prime they make up for in their beliefs and attitudes. There was no stage fright that evening, even when playing in front of a home audience that is expected to be nearly 16,000 and that can go from fanatical support to vicious hyper-criticism in 90 minutes.
Turkish coach Senol Gunes has chosen not to add another defensive midfielder to the midfield. Why should he Nobody had conceded fewer goals in the qualifying tournament than Turkey – three of them from open play. That was before the pandemic, of course. Most recently, they had scored 10 goals in the three World Cup qualifiers in March (including four against the Netherlands and three against Norway). As with so many things in COVID times, it was hard to tell what you would get. Like the fine print on your 401 (k) brochures, past performance is not a guarantee of future results.
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It was something Mancini had emphasized. It is better to play your own game and let your opponents take care of you than to try to gain an advantage for you. He put Italy in the 4-3-3, which we’ve seen throughout his tenure, with center-forward Ciro Immobile flanked by the tricky Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi, the surprise baller from the Sassuolo province. In contrast to most of its predecessors on Azzurri Bank, Mancini preached a fun, carefree style. To reinforce this, he chose Leonardo Spinazzola (who normally plays as a full-back) and Alessandro Florenzi (a recycled winger not known for his defense) as full-backs in defense. In between the enormously experienced Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, two central defenders with a total of 70 years. If Italy really attacked as much as was promised, they would defend further up front anyway and wouldn’t have to worry about old legs at the back.
The Stadio Olimpico was less than a quarter full, but the noise of the crowd was tremendous, both for the crowd at home – there are no computer-generated audio here – and for the players on the pitch, the vast majority of whom had only known empty , Echo caves for much of the past 15 months.
Italy had a lot of possession in the first half, but old Fox Gunes’ game plan ruined much of the set-up with Turkey sitting deep and tight. Chielini slipped from club mate Merih Demiral and his header forced Ugurcan Cakir to deflect the ball over the crossbar. Aside from a couple of immobile hits and a clean play that resulted in Insigne’s shot being deflected wide, that was Italy’s net profit in the first half.
Before the break, at the latest, there was conversation when Spinazzola’s cross hit Zeki Celik’s arm in the penalty area. Referee Danny Makkelie had a clear view and shook his head while the video assistant referees did their “silent check”. It was the kind of incident that might have been an automatic penalty in some leagues – like Serie A or La Liga – last season with Celik’s arm away from his body. But UEFA chief referee Roberto Rosetti was clear ahead of the tournament, reminding referees not only to consider the position of the arm, but also the biomechanics of a player’s movement and whether it was “natural” and “coordinated”. Celik saw both.
The precedent for handballs in this tournament has now been set. Will future decisions follow the same methodology? If not, the fans – not to mention the players and managers – will be pulling their hair out in no time.
Half-time came without Turkey firing a single shot on goal. Gunes wouldn’t have been happy with that, but he would have liked one more stat (besides the big goose eggs on the jumbotron): Chiellini, the veteran defender not known for his skill on the ball, had more passes than anyone else on the pitch , 54 in total. So the game plan worked: Turkey refused the room and was all too happy to let Italy’s weakest passer on the ball.
You felt that it might take a mistake to break the ice. It almost happened in the 51st minute when a mistake by Jorginho Cengiz Under and his rapid pace set free on the counterattack, in front of him only green grass and Italy’s massive goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. A breathless recovery run from Spinazzola and Donnarumma’s own near-post reflexes thwarted the danger.
The breakthrough mistake came almost two minutes later. Berardi’s little slope to the right landed Umut Meras on his bum. Berardi whipped a vicious cross from half height, Demiral did not get out of the way in time and steered the ball into his own net.
Goals change games … and approaches. Turkey made two substitutions and, equally importantly, shifted the team’s center of gravity further up. Italy capitalizes almost instantly. Spinazzola’s shot – after a deft ball movement – forced Cakir to make a great save, but the ball fell on Immobile, who made it 2-0 in the 66th minute.
The collective sigh of relief beneath Azzurri Fans was palpable. Immobile – a hugely successful goalscorer who averaged more than 24 goals per season in Serie A for the past five years but never quite got the national team rolling – was hit. His ability to play up front wouldn’t be a topic of conversation for the next few days. And above all, this was Italy. At home and 2-0, you never say never, but the pedigree and history tell you that you won’t lose any points in the circumstances.
Plus, the room magically opens up when the opponent chases after the game. What happened 11 minutes before the end when Italy, still pushing, won the ball back and found an unmarked insignia for one of their signature curly finishes to make the third.
“We played well, even in the first half, even if we didn’t score,” said Mancini at the final whistle. “The fans really lifted us, I think we can all be happy … and I hope we have more nights like this one.”
Indeed. The philosophical transformation he preached has passed its toughest tests yet. Talented players like Berardi, Spinazzola and Insigne, all of whom have seen a lot in their careers, have proven that they deserve their manager’s trust. So did the much maligned real estate who got an evil monkey off his back. And even the age-old partnership between Chiellini and Bonucci has shown that they have a lot in the tank – at least when they play against a lonely striker their age like Burak Yilmaz.
It’s a beginning, it’s a single step, but that’s how every long journey begins. Italy, a country only now recovering from the pandemic after being among the hardest hit in the western world, knows this all too well. Seeing their squad start out like this in the eternal city of Rome when fans return is anything but insignificant. Just ask Immobil.
“This victory goes to everyone everywhere who has been affected by this terrible disease and especially to everyone who is still fighting it,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat.”