Italy return to Wembley on Wednesday for the first time since beating England in the Euro 2020 final last July – yet the jubilation and glory of those summer days has long gone.
The European champions will face Argentina in the revived Finalissima, a competition pitting the European Championship winners against the Copa America champions.
Argentina arrive on a high, having ended a 28-year wait to be crowned South American champions – a success they followed by qualifying unbeaten for November’s World Cup in Qatar.
But things are very different for Italy and their manager Roberto Mancini following their shock failure to reach the World Cup.
Having been overtaken at the top of Group C in qualifying by Switzerland, they were beaten at home by North Macedonia in their play-off semi-final.
It was a flashback to the trauma of 2018, when Italy also failed to qualify for international football’s biggest tournament.
How could the Azzurri miss out on two consecutive World Cups?
After their failure four years ago, Mancini was tasked with rebuilding Italian football.
He actually revolutionised it, nourishing unheard of ideas in Italy such as offensive-minded football, fun on the pitch and team spirit.
There was speculation after the latest World Cup disappointment that he might walk away or be pushed.
“This is the biggest deception of my career, I feel responsible for it. Am I going to resign? I don’t know, I need to think,” Mancini said at the time.
But he stayed and asked to pick up the pieces again.
There will be no drastic revolution this time – but there will be evolution.
The intervention he has been empowered to make will have neither the same size nor the same impact as his first one, because the pivotal points will not change.
Everything will still rotate around the concept of offensive football, entertainment and group spirit.
But Mancini will be looking to reignite his team, which enjoyed a world-best run of 37 unbeaten games before the Uefa Nations League semi-final against Spain last October, rather than rebuild it from scratch. The list of 30 players called up for the Finalissima – down from 47 candidates – confirms that.
Italy have a solid base to start from.
Captain Giorgio Chiellini will say farewell on Wednesday after 117 caps and eight goals – a fitting farewell given Wembley is the stadium where he lifted the biggest trophy of his career.
But the Azzurri already have his natural successor in his long-term friend Leonardo Bonucci, 35.
Other heroes from the Wembley epic, such as Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile will not be part of the project either.
But continuity is guaranteed through Jorginho, Marco Verratti, Nicolo Barella, Manuel Locatelli, Leonardo Spinazzola and Gianluigi Donnarumma. Forward Federico Chiesa, out injured for the Argentina game but pivotal for Mancini, will be back soon.
The future Italian squad will be younger than it has been previously. Inter Milan centre-back Alessandro Bastoni, 23, will slip into Chiellini’s position, while Giacomo Raspadori, Gianluca Scamacca and Nicolo Zaniolo – who will not play at Wembley because of a bruised ankle – are names for the future up front.
In fact, they all took to the pitch together in Konya in a 3-2 friendly win over Turkey in March as Mancini fielded an attacking trio six years younger on average to the one he had used against England.
Italy will probably develop into a physically stronger team too. Surely it can’t be long before the manager opts for the power of AC Milan midfielder Sandro Tonali and the dynamism of Sassuolo midfielder Davide Frattesi?
To boost his young players’ development, Mancini will be counting on the forthcoming games as well as the transfer market.
He will use the Finalissima and the Nations League matches against Germany, England and Hungary to give his players experience at the highest level, something many still lack.
Mancini also hopes some of his players, come September and the next round of games, will be wearing different club shirts.
He would welcome moves to top-level clubs in Italy or abroad for Sassuolo trio Raspadori, Scamacca and Domenico Berardi – the latter shook like a leaf in front of North Macedonia’s empty goal in March when he had the chance to seal a World Cup spot.
But Mancini is looking further ahead too, having invited 50 youngsters to a dedicated training camp and given Wilfried Gnonto, an 18-year-old striker with Ivorian origins, a first full call-up.
The message is that the doors are open to everyone, especially for youngsters who prove their worth – as the little-known FC Zurich forward did in the past days.
A positive performance against Argentina at Wembley would go a long way to showing Mancini is on the right track as his latest project gathers pace.
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