With less than 10 months away from the start of Euro 2020, postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, European teams are starting to put together their squads. The month-long football extravaganza is set to kick off on 11th June at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome with Italy playing Turkey.
Since his appointment as Italy manager on May 14, 2018, Roberto Mancini has worked wonders to revitalize an Azzurri squad that had failed to reach the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Italy completed a perfect qualifying campaign, winning 10 out of their 10 matches, scoring 37 goals, and conceding just four goals.
It has been quite the turnaround for a national team that seems to boast more and more depth with each passing week. There are plenty of players who have begun to establish themselves at the top level this season who will look to take advantage of the postponement of the Euros and aim to ensconce themselves into Mancini’s good graces.
Let’s take a look at 11 Italian players who could benefit from the Euros being pushed back until 2021.
1. Sandro Tonali
The Brescia regista is blessed with a fantastic technique, vision and energy, and his ability to both dictate the tempo of play and get stuck into the opposition marks him as a special talent. However, despite his best efforts, La Leonessa were still relegated to Serie B after just a single season in the top flight.
As a result, Tonali finds himself at a crossroads between the top two clubs in Serie A — Juventus and Inter — both of whom are looking to add Tonali to their midfield ranks as they mount a push for the 2020/21 Scudetto.
He made his national team debut during the qualifying campaign and it’s clear that Mancini holds the Lodi-born player in high regard. In addition to his displays during the run of play, Tonali has shown a penchant for the spectacular from dead balls as well, scoring a brilliant free kick versus Genoa from an acute angle.
Despite competing against the likes of Stefano Sensi, Marco Verratti and Jorginho for a starting spot, Tonali has everything it takes to play a key role in midfield for the Azzurri next summer.
2. Federico Chiesa
Fast, skillful and with the ability to contribute on both ends of the pitch, the Fiorentina phenom perfectly encapsulates the style of play that Italy have displayed since Mancini took the reins. Like Tonali, he has been linked with several of Europe’s giants, but new La Viola owner Rocco Commisso has resisted the urge to sell his prized asset, at least so far.
Photo: Gabriele Maltinti / Getty
His ability to take on and get past defenders, particularly from his right wing position, has caused all kinds of havoc for opposition defenders. Coupled with his vision, either with a cross or slide rule ball, Chiesa has registered 11 goals and 9 assists this season — his highest ever combined total. He has also displayed his tactical versatility, as following an injury to Franck Ribéry, he was deployed as a “false nine” and held his own admirably. It’s a tactic that may come into play at the Euros.
Immediately after taking charge of the club last summer, Commisso vowed to not sell Chiesa “even for €100 million.” However, with Chiesa, 22, entering the final 24 months of his contract, the president may have no other choice but to cash in on his prized possession after the Euros.
3. Nicolò Zaniolo
After breaking onto the scene in the 2018/19 season for Roma, Zaniolo started 2020 off on the wrong foot. In the second match of the new year, Zaniolo tore his ACL in a 2-1 loss against Juventus. His chances of representing Italy during the Euros looked slim at best, but after making a full recovery and impressing during the restart of Serie A under Paulo Fonseca, he’s looking better than ever before.
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With a full year of football under his belt, Zaniolo has the opportunity to not only regain his best form — not that he ever lost it — but also discover his best position. The Italian has been used in a wide range of roles during his time at the capital, and although he has mostly operated on the right flank of attack, he has played in an advanced midfield role in the center of the pitch.
Despite his 6’3″ frame, Zaniolo has the speed and close control to glide past defenses and create danger on the counter. Zaniolo will have a tough time beating out Chiesa for a starting spot on the right side of attack, but he can certainly make an impact off the bench for the Azzurri come next summer’s Euros.
4. Nicolò Barella
In an era of football when all-round footballers are not as valued as they should be, Barella stands out. The 23-year old Sardinian can cover a variety of roles in midfield, and he has become an automatic starter for Antonio Conte’s Inter. He is tactically intelligent, with the ability to combine with his teammates as well as win back possession with a sniper’s precision, and he’s been known to score the odd spectacular goal or two.
Photo: Reuters / Daniele Mascoro
Barella’s temperament needs some work, as he can at times become too argumentative with officials as well as too aggressive in making tackles, but given his age, that can be ironed out.
It’s precisely this energy and versatility that has solidified Barella’s starting spot on the right side of Italy’s midfield trio. He has scored three goals and added two others during qualifying, and with Italy pushing to win their first trophy in 15 years, he’ll be indispensable for Mancini.
Another year of development with Antonio Conte competing for honors in Italy and Europe will only enhance his skill set, as he seeks to refine his attributes ahead of the Euros.
5. Alessio Romagnoli
It goes without saying that Mancini’s preferred center back partnership is captain Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, both of whom share a combined age of 68. However, amongst Italy’s other options at the heart of defense, Romagnoli is leading the pack to replace them.
Photo: Alessandro Sabattini / Getty
At 25, he has grown into a leader for Milan, having worn the armband for the Rossoneri for the past two years. He will have to bide his time; in his four years within the Azzurri set-up, Romagnoli has registered just 12 caps. However, Chiellini will be 36 years old when the Euros commence, and after being sidelined for six months due to a ruptured ACL, there’s no guarantee he’ll be back to his best levels by 2021.
Should Chiellini fail to restore his top level by the time the Euros roll around, Mancini can rest easy in knowing that he has a ready-made replacement in Romagnoli. With an elegance on the ball that allows him to kickstart attacks, and a cunning positional sense that enables him to snuff out attacks and break up counters, Romagnoli will be a key player for the Azzurri for many years to come.
6. Alex Meret
Before Gennaro Gattuso took over at Napoli in December, the Udine born shot-shopper was the number one at the club under manager Carlo Ancelotti. He has since been usurped by Davide Ospina, with Gattuso prioritizing the Colombian’s ability with the ball at his feet. Still, at 23 years old, Meret has plenty of time to improve his effectiveness in possession.
Despite struggling for minutes in the second half of the season, Meret made his potential known in the Coppa Italia Final, pulling off two excellent saves against Cristiano Ronaldo and stopping Paulo Dybala’s shot in the penalty shootout. Napoli went on to defeat Juventus in the Stadio Olimpico, with the Partenopei winning their first trophy since 2014.
Photo: SSC Napoli via Getty
While Meret has started in goal for the Azzurri at the youth level, leading Italy to the 2016 U-19 Euros Final, he has made just one appearance for the senior team, coming on as a substitute for Salvatore Sirigu in a 9-1 home victory against Armenia in Italy’s final Euro 2020 qualifier.
He’ll have a tough time displacing Gianluigi Donnarumma as Mancini’s first choice on goal, but if he can regain his starting spot at the San Paolo, he might just be able to edge the likes of Pierluigi Gollini, Mattia Perin and Alessio Cragno for one of the final roster spots.
7. Giovanni di Lorenzo
Mancini has tried a laundry list of options at the right back position, experimenting with Gianluca Mancini, Mattia De Sciglio, and Danilo D’Ambrosio, but with less than a year left before the Euros, it’s still not clear who Mancini will pick as his first choice. Nevertheless, one player who could emerge as the starter is Di Lorenzo.
Having joined from Lega Pro side Matera in 2017, Di Lorenzo played a vital role behind Empoli’s successful promotion chase, but despite the best of his efforts, the Tuscan side returned to Serie B after one season in the top flight. Nevertheless, the relegation did not deter the interest of Napoli, who paid €8 million for him in the summer of 2019.
Since his move to Campania, he has been a steady constant in the Partenopei side despite all the ups and downs the club has gone through this season. He is a bucket of energy marauding up and down the right side, providing an extra weapon in attack to go along with with guile and verve. While he has made just two appearances for the senior team, he could become Mancini’s go-to man in the right back spot at the Euros.
8. Gaetano Castrovilli
After a two-year loan at Serie B side Cremonese, Castrovilli has made a name for himself in his first season in the top flight, displaying an outrageous set of skills that has thrilled the supporters at the Artemio Franchi.
However, don’t think he is all style and no substance. He has the ability to move the ball between the lines and has the vision to pick out a teammate, as well as break through the pressure with his dribbling and close control. He isn’t a slouch in the air either, with two of his three goals in the past campaign coming via headers.
Apart from his abilities in the attacking third, he is a tenacious character in the defensive end of the field. Whether that be putting in tackles, man-marking opposition attackers or not backing down from a middle battle, Castrovilli can mix it up with the best of them.
He made his Italy debut against Bosnia & Herzegovina in Euro qualifying, and with another year of top class football, he could be one of the surprises in the squad come 2021. Mancini has a conveyor belt of options in the center of the pitch, but Castrovilli will be pushing to beat out the likes of Rolando Mandragora and Lorenzo Pellegrini for a spot in his final squad.
9. Riccardo Orsolini
After rising up Ascoli’s academy ranks, Orsolini joined Juventus shortly after his 20th birthday for an initial fee of €6 million, rising to €10 million depending on certain conditions. However, he never managed a single appearance for La Vecchia Signora. At the end of the 2016/17 season, Orsolini headed to Atalanta on a two-year loan, but he returned six months later after struggling for minutes with La Dea.
From there, he joined Bologna on loan, with the club arranging to make the loan deal permanent last summer, and has since enjoyed a new lease of life under Siniša Mihajlović at Bologna. Cutting in onto his preferred left foot on the right flank, Orsolini has lit up the Renato Dall’Ara with his pace and panache, providing 8 goals and 8 assists in Serie A this season.
He has the ability to hold off opposition defenders, utilising his strong physique and his trickery to dribble past defenders while hugging the touchline, before setting up a shot for himself or finding a teammate with a cross.
Orsolini made quite the statement in his national team debut, with a superb cut back and cross to set up Chiesa’s goal to complete the 9-1 rout against Armenia in the final qualifier. While it won’t be easy competing against the likes of Federico Bernadeschi, Domenico Berardi and Matteo Politano, Orsolini can potentially be the joker in Mancini’s deck of cards.
10. Andrea Pinamonti and Sebastiano Esposito (tie)
Whilst Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti are Mancini’s first choice strikers for Italy, with one of them typically starting at the tip of the 4-3-3, the ex Manchester City manager will be looking to bring in a deputy along for the ride, someone who can provide an extra spark off the bench.
Moises Kean was earmarked as that player, but he has struggled for form since his move to Everton, whilst the likes of Fabio Quagliarella, Kevin Lasagna and Leonardo Pavoletti have been given the chance to impress for the Azzurri. However, there are two eager young strikers who can and should use the upcoming season to their own advantage to stake a claim for a roster spot: Pinamonti and Esposito.
Neither player has made their senior team debut as yet, but both have played for the youth teams, from the U-15 team all the way up to the U-21 side. Both strikers are owned by Inter, although Pinamonti has spent the past two season on loan at Frosinone and Genoa, respectively, scoring seven goals in 28 matches for the latter. He has impressed in attack for the Grifone, showcasing an ability to hold off defenders and link up possession.
Esposito made his first team debut with the Nerazzurri as a 16-year-old, coming on for Borja Valero in the second leg of a Europa League tie against Eintracht Frankfurt and becoming the youngest ever Inter player to feature in a European fixture. Shortly after, he started in attack for Italy in the 2019 U-17 Euros, leading them to the Final with four goals, where they would eventually lose to the Netherlands in Dublin.
The following season, Esposito scored one goal in seven appearances in Serie A, with his sole goal coming in a 4-0 rout of Pinamonti’s Genoa. With Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro Martínez, and Alexis Sánchez ahead of him in the pecking order, Esposito looks set to depart Inter on loan this summer, with Crotone, Torino, Sampdoria, and Monza all being linked.
The Euros may just be too soon for Esposito and Pinamonti, who will be 18 and 22, respectively, when the tournament kicks off in Rome. However, both players will be looking to make their case for a roster place ahead of their more experienced colleagues next season.
By: Vijay Rahaman
Featured Image: @GabFoligno