Looking back at your old football almanacs, it is still hard to believe your eyes. The 36 appearances and four goals are about 70 matches and 20 strikes behind where the figures should have been for a player of his talent. No wonder Roberto Mancini has the feel of a man with unfinished business when it comes to the national team.
It is always worth remembering, however, where he started from in this coaching role. While Mancio the player was one of the purest talents of his generation, the squad he inherited from Giampiero Ventura had just gifted fans of the Azzurri one of their most miserable summers ever. While others dined at the table of the World Cup 2018, we pressed our noses up against the window or – perhaps worse – sat at home and pretended we didn’t care.
Fast forward to where we are today and how different everything feels. Nine wins out of nine in qualification with a goal difference of plus-whatever-figure-you-like, there is much greater optimism around La Nazionale. A generation of young talent has been introduced to the set-up too, with a number grabbing their opportunity. Everything in the garden looks rosy, doesn’t it?
Ask the coach, though, and he is unlikely to be as buoyant as some supporters have become. That is not to say that he will not be pleased with how things have gone, more that he simply knows tougher exams lie in store. If his time on the field of play has taught him anything, it will be to take nothing for granted.
Because this was the simplest of qualification groups in comparison to the route to the World Cup. The doors to the Euro 2020 party have been thrown so wide open that only the most hapless are likely to miss out. Mancini’s predecessor will point out that he had Spain as his main group rival, while this time around it was Finland. The fact that all their rivals this season could barely scrape into the world’s top 50 FIFA rankings tells its own story.
Would anyone be entirely confident of beating Sweden in a play-off if it was needed this time around? The vibes feel more positive, for sure, and the football has been a great tonic. Nonetheless, some reservations must remain about how this side will perform when it starts to meet trickier opponents.
Despite that, there are reasons to be cheerful. Mancini has created a clear template of how he wants his side to play with the double midfield talents of Jorginho and Marco Verratti finally starting to make the team tick. A more solid defence – just three goals conceded so far in qualification – is encouraging too. And, although question marks remain about the best attacking options, at least there has been a return to goalscoring form for the likes of Andrea Belotti and Ciro Immobile.
Everything Mancini says, however, suggest that he knows that he will not be judged on these games, but on the bigger clashes to come. He learned as much as a player when he went to a World Cup in 1990 and spent it as a spectator when he had started out as a cornerstone of Azeglio Vicini’s side.
As a coach, he will hope his team can deliver a performance next summer that is worthy of the Italian national team’s reputation. Most observers would say that would have to be semi-finals at the very least, which is a pretty tall order given how low the side’s fortunes have fallen. But perhaps they have found the man who can help them produce an outcome which will make pleasant reading for everyone in years to come.