And … breathe. The prospect of Italy, the defending European champions, not qualifying for Euro 2024 — thereby going 1-for-4 in their past four attempts to reach a major tournament — was the sort of ghoulish scenario no Azzurri fan wanted to contemplate.
While there was the safety net of a playoff in March if needed, when Mykhailo Mudryk went down in the penalty area deep into second-half injury time, it felt like the North Macedonia playoff game nobody wants to remember.
But Spanish referee Jesus Gil Manzano didn’t blow his whistle, his VAR colleague Jose Luis Manuel Munuera didn’t call for an on-field review … and that was that.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)
(For the record, I thought it was a penalty in real time, and most replays seemed to confirm this. Was it clear enough for VAR to intervene? That’s above my pay grade, but with a spot in the Euros literally hanging on this decision, it seems nonsensical for Munuera not to send the referee to the screen. Especially given what happened pregame, when month-old comments from UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin — who said “Italy must qualify for Euro 2024, otherwise it will be a disaster” — were widely aired and gave Ukraine plenty of bulletin-board material.)
So it’s another close shave — and a lucky one at that, though if you think back to Jorginho‘s missed penalties in World Cup qualifying, maybe you can call it karma — and it raises the following questions: Are Italy any good? And can they do anything at the Euros?
Let’s take the second one first, and the answer is a very obvious “yes.” A lot can change between now and the start of the Euros on June 14; it’s also a knockout tournament, meaning anything can happen (Greece 2004, anyone?) and most bookies have the Azzurri as sixth favourites, which sounds about right. The fact is, nobody looks scary good right now, other than France.
The other question — whether Italy are any good — is more interesting.
In terms of approach, manager Luciano Spalletti has continued down the path of his predecessor, Roberto Mancini, who rocked the country three months ago when he walked out to chase the money with the Saudi Arabia national team. That means being proactive, taking the game to the opposition and wanting the ball.
It’s not what Italy were known for during the first 100 years or so of their history, in which they won four World Cups, and it’s not what the likes of France coach Didier Deschamps and England boss Gareth Southgate believe works at the international level. But it’s fun to watch, it’s what most successful teams do at the club level, and the analytics folks will tell you it’s your best chance for success.
The problem is that analytics folks work with large, broad samples — not the individual reality of a team, taking into account their quirks and foibles. Which, in the case of Italy, who are not the most cohesive and experienced bunch, means you might get games like Monday night, when they dominated Ukraine for an hour or so, could have scored two or three goals and then suffered mightily at the end when their opponents, with nothing to lose, threw the kitchen sink at them, nearly tripping them up, but for that penalty non-call.
As for personnel, it’s hit or miss up and down the side.
Gianluigi Donnarumma might not have reached the heights some folks predicted for him when he became a Serie A starter at 16, but he can be a shutdown keeper when on top of his game. The back four, much-maligned in the past, is deeper than it appears. The full-backs, Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Federico Dimarco are among the best in the world in their respective positions.
In the middle, it’s true that for a key match like Ukraine that Spalletti had to call upon 35-year-old Francesco Acerbi and Alessandro Buongiorno, the latter making only his second start. But they did well and in any case, those guys are fourth- or fifth-choice in the pecking order. (My partnership? Alessandro Bastoni and Giorgio Scalvini, but that’s just me.) Plus, the last time around, Italy won the Euros with 36-year-old Giorgio Chiellini and 34-year-old Leonardo Bonucci, so yeah, I can live with that.
The issues start to arise in midfield: get past the excellent Nicolò Barella, and you can poke holes in anyone. The other two starters against Ukraine, Davide Frattesi and Jorginho, aren’t regulars at club level (they’ve started a combined five league games for Inter and Arsenal respectively.) Bryan Cristante is a blue-collar ball-winner … and the guy responsible for the Mudryk incident.) Sandro Tonali has been banned for 10 months and won’t be there. Lorenzo Pellegrini has been injured most of this season, having started started just three league games. Marco Verratti is playing in Qatar these days, while Manuel Locatelli isn’t having a great season and, increasingly, feels like “just another guy.”
Things go further downhill from there. Federico Chiesa is Italy’s biggest attacking threat, and if he plays like he did against Ukraine, he can carry the team. But he’s missed big chunks of the past two seasons and consistency is hardly his forte, though he’s the epitome of durability and stability compared to the other starter on Monday, Nicolò Zaniolo. Yeah, when Zaniolo is good, he’s close to unplayable. But between injuries and dips in form — there’s a reason he’s 24 and has somehow started just 79 league games in his career — you don’t see it much.
There’s not much in the way of depth, either. Matteo Politano? Domenico Berardi? Mattia Zaccagni? Moise Kean? Stephan El Shaarawy? They’re blue-collar worker bees who turn it on occasionally, but offer little more. And before you bring up Wilfried Gnonto, let’s see him become a regular at Leeds in the English Championship first, shall we?
And that’s before we get to the center-forward role. Giacomo Raspadori was delightful to watch against Ukraine, but once Victor Osimhen is fit, you imagine he’s heading back to the Napoli bench. Ciro Immobile turns 34 in February, is having his worst season in years, and nobody seems to like him anyway.
Mateo Retegui? He scored a couple of goals after giving up on his Argentina dream, but he’s injured again and I’m not sure a guy who is 24 and spent six seasons on loan from a bigger club to a smaller club is the guy in whose basket you want to stow your eggs. Which leaves Gianluca Scamacca. He’s big, strong and at times convincing, but he’s also the guy who scored double figures just once in his career, was a dud at West Ham United last season and has been in and out of the team at Atalanta this year.
Could someone else step up? Maybe somebody out of Lorenzo Lucca, Lorenzo Colombo or Pietro Pellegri will blossom (or, in Pellegri’s case, stay healthy), but it’s nothing to count on. And none of these guys will be mistaken for Erling Haaland (or even Niclas Füllkrug) anytime soon.
So yeah, this team is flawed, uneven and incomplete. But this is international football … that’s pretty much the norm. And hey, at least they’ll actually be there, unlike the last major tournament.