Tuesday, March 28

‘We should not be here’: Mancini targets World Cup win before Italy play-off | Italy

Roberto Mancini has not been persuaded yet to dial back his ambitions. He insisted at his first press conference of him as Italy manager, back in 2018, that he intended to put the Azzurri back “on top of the world”. On Monday, before a Qatar 2022 qualifying play-off semi-final against North Macedonia, I echoed that sentiment, saying: “The objective is not to go to the World Cup, but to win it.”

In public, at least, Mancini has never wavered in his conviction that Italy will reach November’s tournament. Not all his compatriots of him are so convinced. The president of the Italian Football Federation, Gabriele Gravina, lamented a national culture of naysaying; the “gufi e gufetti” as he called them – literally, “owls and little owls”, but used in Italian superstition as a symbol for jinxes – “perching on branches of bad luck”.

Some anxiety is understandable in a country desperate to see its football team back at the World Cup after failing to qualify for the previous edition – the first time Italy had missed out for 60 years. Yet the context is very different this time.

Italy never found an identity under Mancini’s predecessor, Giampiero Ventura, constantly changing tactics and suffering a 3-0 humiliation by Spain when they showed up at the Santiago Bernabéu for a key qualifier with an untested 4-2-4. Disaffection with the manager was vividly illustrated when Daniele De Rossi refused to come off the bench in the play-off second leg against Sweden.

Mancini’s Italy arrive as European champions. True, their 37-game unbeaten run was ended in the Nations League semi-final by Spain but, even then, they rebounded to beat Belgium in the third-place play-off. Italy are yet to lose a game in this World Cup qualifying run – dropping into the play-offs because of too many draws: against Switzerland (twice), Bulgaria and Northern Ireland.

And yet, there are reasonable causes for concern. Mancini has indicated that, with limited preparation time, he will rely on the core group who won the Euros. But against North Macedonia he is expected to be without three-quarters of the defense that started the final against England. The one retained starter, Emerson, was a mid-tournament replacement for Leonardo Spinazzola.

Up front, Italy have lost Federico Chiesa to injury and Lorenzo Insigne’s form has dipped since last summer. Ciro Immobile is expected to keep his place in the No 9 role, and recently surpassed Silvio Piola as Lazio’s all-time leading scorer in Serie A, but he has not found the net for Italy in six games.

A lack of goals is what put the Azzurri in this position. They conceded twice in eight group games – the joint-fewest in Uefa qualifying – but scored two goals across the four draws.

Mancini is not short of options. Together with Immobile and Andrea Belotti – Italy’s alternate No 9 at the Euros – he has called up three more centre-forwards chosen for their varied skillsets: the 6ft 4in Gianluca Scamacca, whose game is built around physicality, his 5ft 8in Sassuolo teammate Giacomo Raspadori , a nimble and explosive runner, and Cagliari’s João Pedro, a more comfortable technical player taking up deeper positions.

Domenico Berardi of Sassuolo is expected to feature on the right side of Italy’s attack in Palermo on Thursday. Photograph: Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Each has excelled at club level this season, and Mancini might consider the benefit of combining Scamacca or Raspadori with another Sassuolo player, Domenico Berardi, who is expected to start on the right of attack in Italy’s 4-3-3. But those first two players have nine international appearances and a single goal between them. João Pedro is yet to win his first cap.

Italy will be favorites regardless against North Macedonia, who have themselves lost key figures since Euro 2020. Goran Pandev, their all-time leader in appearances and goals, retired from international football last summer, while Eljif Elmas, the Napoli midfielder and one of their joint-top scorers in qualifying, is suspended.

Most significant may be the departure of Igor Angelovski, the manager who qualified North Macedonia for the Euros – their first participation in a major tournament as an independent nation – and led them to an upset win over Germany last March.

Even so, they are not a team to be taken lightly. Italy faced North Macedonia twice in their 2018 qualifying campaign, drawing in Turin and requiring a 92nd-minute winner from Immobile to win in Skopje.

The Italian government has granted dispensation for a full crowd at Palermo’s Stadio Renzo Barbera – at a time when other sporting events are limited to 75% of capacity because of the pandemic – in further evidence of how much this occasion is weighing on a nation’s psyche.

“We should not have been here,” said Mancini on Monday, but he prefers to focus on the positives. “I have talented players who built a victory out of nothing that nobody believed in. That does not guarantee you getting to the World Cup, but it’s a solid base.”


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