Ahead of every single game in the last few years, there has been the feeling of not really knowing which Italy you’re going to get.
The Italy that wins the Euros in the midst of a 37-game unbeaten run – or the one that fails to qualify for back-to-back World Cups? The Italy that qualifies for the Nations League final or the one gets thrashed by Argentina in the Finalissima? The Italy that beats England 1-0 before the World Cup or the one that loses 5-2 to Germany?
All this confusion makes it difficult to remember that Italy begin their 2024 European Championship qualification campaign against England on Thursday night as holders of the entire competition. No reminders are needed as to how they managed to claim that status.
Italy’s failure to reach the last two World Cups came about through failing to qualify directly for the tournaments due to having another European heavyweight in their group. A second-place finish would result in a play-off campaign – which again proved too difficult.
And the Azzurri are in a tricky group once again with England – who have a near-perfect record in major tournament qualification campaigns – and a plucky opponent in Ukraine, who will likely be everybody’s second team in this group.
The top two in Group C qualify for Euro 2024 but three do not go into two. Even with a superb record over England – with just one defeat in their last 10 games over the past 25 years – can Italy avoid being the odd one out again?
Mancini vs Serie A in the club-country debate
Of course, Italy’s issues run deeper than just a bad luck of the draw. What is noticeable is a lack of top-class talent in their ranks. The days of having the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Pirlo in the spine are long gone.
Leandro Bonucci is the last of that generation at 35 years old, while Marco Veratti and Jorginho are still the country’s most successful exports into the rest of Europe.
Young players such as Nicolo Barella, Alessandro Bastoni and Nicolo Zaniolo were all billed as the next generation but they now appear to be false dawns, especially at club level. Federico Chiesa is the main attacking spark up, next in line is Leeds’ Wilfried Gnonto, whose stock is still rising at 19.
What is not helping Italy’s cause is a reliance on foreign talent to improve the Italian game. Italy manager Roberto Mancini believes it has gone too far.
Napoli are the success story of Italian football this season, but their only regular outfield option from Italy is Matteo Politano – and even he is rotated regularly. Last week, AC Milan named a starting XI without an Italian player for the first time. Both made the Champions League quarter-finals this month but their success has come at a cost to the national team.
“The teams are Italian, but there aren’t too many Italian players. That’s the problem,” said Mancini after picking his squad. “This is a problem we’ve had for a long time.
“If you see the three Italian teams left in the Champions League, they have seven or eight Italians combined. That is not a lot.
“We can’t complain about it. This is the reality and we must do something different. In some [reserve team] games, there aren’t Italian players at all.”
Asked about how it affects Thursday’s game with England, Mancini added: “It will be a tough game and it will be crucial to start well, but we need players who know these sorts of games.”
The dearth in top-level talent could explain why Mancini has used 96 players since becoming Italy manager five years ago. Compare that to Gareth Southgate, who has picked 88 England players – but has been in the job for two years longer than his Italian counterpart.
How Mancini’s squad is shaping up
What affects Italy in this international break is a striker problem. Injuries to first-choice option Ciro Immobile and back-up Giacomo Raspadori has forced Mancini to juggle his options once again.
The most experienced option is West Ham’s Gianluca Scamacca – out of favour in east London and still coming back from an injury himself.
Behind him in the centre-forward pecking order is 17-year-old Simone Pafundi of Udinese, alongside the uncapped Mateo Retegui of Argentine side Tigre, who has only just decided to switch allegiance to Italy and not pursue a career with the World Cup winners.
But the good news for Italy is their strength in depth out wide. In-form wingers Gnonto and Vincenzo Grifo back up the likes of Chiesa, Politano and Domenico Berardi nicely.
There is also positivity about the midfield and defence. Mancini not selecting Euro 2020 hero Manuel Locatelli for tactical reasons alongside popular centre-back Gianluca Mancini is a sign there is plenty of depth.
What this Italy squad will be, however, is completely united as the Azzurri play their first match since the passing of Gianluca Vialli in January.
The former Italy striker’s close friendship with former Sampdoria team-mate Mancini was clearly seen when the Azzurri won Euro 2020 at Wembley – the Italy manager hugging his late friend, who was working as the national team’s delegation chief at the time, on the turf in a moment that came in between Vialli’s two battles with cancer.
Mancini revealed that his last conversation with Vialli came a few weeks before his passing – where his friend ordered the Italy manager and his squad to go and win the 2026 World Cup.
“These are going to be difficult days,” Mancini said earlier this month. “I will feel the huge emptiness that I feel every day even more strongly.
“Everything that he gave behind must be used here – for our present and our future.”
Follow the live blog of Italy vs England in the European Championships qualifier on Thursday night on the Sky Sports website and app from 6pm, kick-off 7.45pm.