Euro 2024 team guides part seven: Italy | Italy

This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2024 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 14 June.

Prospects

The champions are back, with a different coach, different leaders, and a different style. A lot has changed in the past three years, in the country and the national team. Italy has elected its first female prime minister, Covid is hopefully behind us and La Nazionale start a new adventure with no pressure.

Italy are not among the favourites in Germany, and the coach Luciano Spalletti, appointed after Roberto Mancini left Italy for Saudi Arabia, enters the tournament as an underdog. Not a bad perspective for a man that, only a year ago, won the scudetto with Napoli against all odds.

The holders qualified after finishing second in Group C behind England, the key game being a goalless draw with Ukraine in Germany. At Euro 2024, Italy will play Albania, Spain and Croatia in one of the toughest groups of the tournament. “Being the reigning champions is a stimulus,” Spalletti says. “In 2021, Italy were not among the strongest teams on paper, but then they became a special team. Three years later, we have to play a free football. Personally, I win if I manage to create a team.”

Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, the defensive duo that led Italy to glory in 2021, will watch from home. Nicolò Barella and Gianluigi Donnarumma must step up and be the key players, in a team that is struggling to find offensive solutions and will miss the injured quartet of Destiny Udogie, Nicolò Zaniolo, Francesco Acerbi and Giorgio Scalvini.

The striker problem in particular seems to be endemic within the genetics of Italian football, having also concerned the youth teams. Mancini won Euro 2020 with only two goals from Ciro Immobile, his starting striker, and Spalletti’s quest for a centre-forward lasted months. Can Gianluca Scamacca or Mateo Retegui be the heir of Paolo Rossi, Totò Schillaci, Christian Vieri and the strikers that wrote history in a maglia azzurrra?

The coach

Luciano Spalletti will take the national team to a major tournament for the first time. In the last two decades, he led Roma, Zenit, Roma again, Internazionale and Napoli, winning a scudetto and two Russian titles. At 65, he has the body of a man in his 50s and no fear to take unpopular decisions. Spalletti has used a 3-4-2-1 and a 4-3-3 formation, a similar approach to the one taken by Mancini during his tenure, but is definitely stricter than his predecessor. In February, he made the news saying he wouldn’t let his players use videogames: “If modernity is playing the PlayStation until 4am in the morning before a game, modernity is not a good thing. A national team must be a pack of wolves. Players come and play for the national team to win the Euro, not to win Call of Duty.” Clear enough.

The icon

Gianluigi Donnarumma standing still as a statue after saving Bukayo Saka’s penalty, a subtle smile on his face, is one of the iconic images of Italy’s Euro 2020 win. Has had a good season at PSG and got used to facing criticism. “It is not easy to deal with critics, but we have to be professionals, we need to keep balance and stay calm,” he once said. Spalletti commented: “Gigio has never been forgiven for being a child prodigy, who jumped ahead because of his talent.” Without Chiellini (retired) and Immobile (not in the squad), there’s something new this summer: Donnarumma at 25 will be Italy’s captain.

One to watch

Davide Frattesi could be the next big thing in Italian football. In his first season with Inter, he played only a few games as a starter but scored six Serie A goals and was crucial in the comeback in Lisbon against Benfica (from 3-0 to 3-3) in November. In the qualifiers with the Azzurri, he was the man of the match in the key home game against Ukraine. He attracted criticism during the Milan derby played in September, when, with Inter leading 4-1, he shushed Rafa Leão and showed four fingers before making it 5-1 himself.

Davide Frattesi (centre) celebrates after scoring the first of his, and Italy’s, two goals in their Euro 2024 qualifier victory over Ukraine in September 2023. Photograph: Matteo Bazzi/EPA-EFE

The maverick

Gianluca Mancini is the king of the unexpected. In 12 days earlier this year, between 6 April and 18 April, he scored the only goal in the Rome derby, displayed an offensive banner to Lazio fans, was fined by Serie A’s sporting judge and scored two goals to eliminate Milan from the Europa League. Quite intense. Moreover, in the same spell he went viral when Ryanair replied to a tweet by a Roma fan, ironically stating that only their airline was hated more than Mancini by the Italians.

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The spine

Donnarumma-Bastoni-Barella-Scamacca. Four players, none older than 27, are asked to be the new leaders of the Azzurri. Born at the end of the 20th century, they started watching football when Italy won the 2006 World Cup and are a good symbol of the Italian Gen Z, who got used to seeing the World Cup on TV without the Azzurri being involved, rooting for Iceland, Panama or Argentina (but never France). They have all the football skills they need to take centre stage and lead the squad to victory (or to a semi-final this time, which might be a more realistic aim).

Probable starting XI

Celebrity fan

Ok, in 1982 Mick Jagger sang in a Paolo Rossi shirt (and said “Italy will beat Germany 3-1”, a prophet!). Ok, Sharon Stone tweeted “Brava Italia!” when Italy won Euro 2020 against England. But, also three years ago, after the final in London, Madonna remembered she had Italian grandparents and posted a story with the good old slogan “Italians Do It Better”. You can’t beat that – True Blue?

Culinary delight

Time has passed since Fantozzi, an iconic fictional character in 20th century Italian cinema, watched a qualifier between England and Italy eating a giant omelette with onions. In 2024 Italians meet for a pizza (what else?), a beer and possibly a tiramisù for the extra time. Plan B: spaghetti. As Chiellini and Bonucci said in response to some taunts from English fans at Euro 2020: “We keep eating pasta … and you?”.

The Italy team guide was written by Luca Bianchin for Gazzetta dello Sport

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