After opening this European Championship with one commanding 3-0 win, Roberto Mancini now has a pair of them to point to when asked about the Azzurri’s credentials. This victory over Switzerland – won by two fine Manuel Locatelli goals and a late Ciro Immobile strike – was every bit as impressive as that demolition of Turkey and stretched their unbeaten run under Mancini’s stewardship to 29 games.
It is now 10 games and some 965 minutes since Gianluigi Donnarumma was beaten in goal. Do not mistake this for a classically conservative Italian set-up, though. Since that last concession way back in October, they have scored 31 times. Before Friday night, they had never scored three in one game at these finals. They have now done that twice in the space of a week.
There is a nagging sense that perhaps they are peaking too early, that this is all set up nicely to end in either glorious failure or embarrassing anticlimax, perhaps a narrow penalty shoot-out defeat. Maybe, in the final analysis, there will be more substance to some of the other contenders. The loss of captain Giorgio Chiellini to an apparent hamstring injury was a sour note at the Stadio Olimpico.
Yet while the first thing to strike you about Italy on this night was their shorts – navy blue rather than the traditional white underneath the Azzurri shirt – the second thing was the sharpness of their passing. The third was the variability of their movement, which was either unpredictable or unpreventable. And altogether, they carried the unmistakable conviction of a team that knows they can win this tournament.
Mancini has built something difficult to define, that does not easily match any of the popular schools of modern coaching, but has an unquestionable quality. There is one category that this side certainly does not sit in and that is of the old Italian stereotype. Only the granite-hewn centre-halves Chiellini and Leonardo Bonnuci fit that mould, but at times even they were getting in on the act.
Chiellini, in fact, would have opened the scoring under an old copy of the rulebook, after he connected with Lorenzo Insigne’s inswinging corner, saw his initial attempt blocked and then turned in the loose ball on the rebound. The ball had been frogmarched over the line by sheer force of will, yet it had also struck Chiellini’s forearm on the way. VAR cut the Olimpico’s celebrations short and Chiellini’s evening would come to an abrupt end too.
A hamstring injury forced Italy’s captain only a few minutes later. The severity is yet to be established, and Chiellini’s grimace on the substitutes’ bench suggested it could be serious, but a long lay-off would not be the substantial to Italy that it would have been years ago. Francesco Acerbi, the Juventus defender’s replacement, played much of the stellar qualifying campaign while Chiellini was recovering from a knee ligament injury.
And as if to prove that the loss of one player would not unravel all their promise, Italy led two minutes later. The early days of this tournament have been blessed with several special goals and Locatelli’s first is up there with the best.
The Sassuolo midfield lynchpin started the move with an immaculate volleyed pass out to the right-hand touchline, where Domenico Berardi isolated his marker and drove at goal, daring Ricardo Rodriguez to step in and tackle. Once Berardi sensed Rodriguez breaking stride, he burst to the byline and cut-back for Locatelli, who had sprinted from the halfway line to finish what he had started.
It was a sublime goal but, to be fair, his second was not bad either. Having started the second half with the same degree of authority as they had ended the first, Italy set a trap for the Swiss and perfectly executed a flowing counter which carried the ball from the left wing to the right and from the edge of one penalty area to the other in just three delicately weighted passes.
Berardi’s low cross was misplaced but possession was recycled briefly again then worked to Locatelli who, from just outside the penalty area, put his laces through the ball to find the bottom right-hand corner. It was the first-time that the deep-lying midfielder – a disciple of Andrea Pirlo, and outstanding in that role for Sassuolo this year – has ever scored twice in one game.
Immobile provided the neat symmetry two minutes from time, matching Friday’s scoreline with a strike from outside the area that goalkeeper Yann Sommer could perhaps have prevented. It was overkill, in a way. By that point, Italy were already certain of being the first side at these finals to reach the knock-out stages. Judging by the strength of their two performances so far, they will go much further still.