Troubles and opportunities for Italy ahead of Euro 2024

It was a traumatic year for the Italian national team with a change of coach...

Troubles and opportunities for Italy ahead of Euro 2024

It was a traumatic year for the Italian national team with a change of coach and a troubled qualification campaign. Giancarlo Rinaldi looks back at the testing events and ahead to the challenges in store.

When Mykhailo Mudryk tumbled in the box, a nation held its breath. Bryan Cristante’s dangling leg looked like it might have consigned the reigning European champions to a troublesome play-off route to their title defence. The sigh of relief when there was no VAR check of the incident could be heard among Azzurri fans across the globe.

It was the pivotal moment of a tempestuous 12 months for the Italian national team. Having watched a World Cup from the sidelines at the end of 2022, the rebuilding process did not go smoothly. Having put their faith in Roberto Mancini despite his failure to qualify, the rug was definitely pulled from under everyone when he announced he was quitting his post in August. The path to Euro 2024 looked more arduous than the Stelvio Pass.

Defeat by England in Naples and a victory over Malta in March had left La Nazionale on the back foot and their mixed results in the Nations League – losing to Spain but beating the Netherlands – failed to convince. Many felt their coach should have quit – or been pushed – after failing to make Qatar 2022 and his squad still looked very transitional. The glory day at Wembley just a couple of years earlier appeared to be a distant memory.

But then he dropped his bombshell and, later, set off for Saudi Arabia. All the ins and outs of how that happened may never be fully known but the upshot was to leave the Azzurri in turmoil. They were fortunate to have a man of Luciano Spalletti’s character waiting in the wings having decided to take a sabbatical after guiding Napoli to the Scudetto.

Anyone hoping for a miracle cure would be disappointed as he did his best to steady the ship but still struggled to produce any dominant displays. There were moments of quality but he was clearly battling to get to grips with the new reality of what he had at his disposal. The great football he had overseen in Naples did not happen overnight.

Still, it was to his credit that he started to create a more confident attitude and, in truth, that vital game with the Ukraine should have been put to bed more convincingly. It was only later in the match that nerves kicked in and there was a danger of the defeat which would have meant missing out on automatic qualification. In the end, it felt like they just about deserved their spot as runners-up to England.

Those difficulties, of course, put the champions into a lowly pot for the draw for Euro 2024 and that duly produced what looks like a bit of a group of death. Albania are tricky enough opponents while Spain and Croatia have both proved hostile opposition in recent years. If Italy are to defend their crown, they will surely have to do it the hard way.

At least qualification has bought Spalletti a little bit of breathing space and time to experiment. There were signs of improvement over his short time in charge as he started to try to give his own identity to the boys in blue. There is more work to be done if they hope to progress deep into next summer’s competition.

Goalkeeping remains a question mark, with Gigio Donnarumma showing worrying signs of decline, and the hunt for a prolific goalscorer remains the headache it was for Mancini. There is plenty of food for thought in other departments too as the Azzurri try their best to blend tried and tested performers with new faces. It is perhaps for the best that their coach has no hair left to pull out.

Still, he can have some grounds for optimism with hints that Federico Chiesa is returning to his breathtaking best. If the Juventus man can be harnessed properly, he is undoubtedly Italy’s main matchwinner and difference-maker and they need to do everything they can to put him in the best position to influence matches. It feels like he can help to recreate the positive vibe that took Italy to glory in England.

The main thrust, however, should be to use the tournament in Germany as a building block towards a World Cup campaign in 2026 in the United States, Mexico and Canada. By that point it will be a jaw-dropping 12 years since they graced the global competition and – for a team of their stature – that cannot be allowed to extend any further. Spalletti should be bold in his choices at the Euros in order to reap the rewards a couple of years later.

The federation needs to back its man with a mandate to plan in advance and use the Euros to be bold and experimental. It could be a chance to give young players a test run and see how they perform in the cauldron of top competition. There is talent there in reserve, but he needs to get a chance to use it without the pressure of thinking he will be shown the door at his first flop. His priority should be to show signs of progress in their football with an eye on the next major competition around the corner.

Italy are definite outsiders for victory in 2024 but they should use that as an opportunity to construct a more credible challenge for the World Cup. They used to be good at long-term planning with the national team but the pressure to produce results seems to have thrown that out the window. It is time to keep calm and trust Luciano. If he can prove as lucky as his name might suggest, there could still be good times in store.

Giancarlo Rinaldi is the author of a number of books on Italian football. You can follow him on X @ginkers and listen to him on the podcast Rigore!.