There is a tournament at last, one year on from Europe’s pandemic summer of 2020, and for Roberto Mancini’s side it felt like they had been waiting a long time for this warm night to show what the modern Italy can do after a period in the wilderness.
Bravo Azzurri, for a Euro 2020 opener that had goals, energy and a plan from the old Manchester City dictator, resplendent in his retro Italian football federation-issue blazer and slacks. His team burst into Euro 2020 with a hunger to put in the hard yards. It took Italy 53 minutes to break down a Turkey team who looked like they had a case of the stage fright – once Merih Demiral had deflected into his own net for the first goal, this side in red started to crumble.
The youngest squad in the tournament, who came into it with much promise and some good results, Turkey struggled to match the high-pressing, forward-looking Italians. There was a goal from the striker Ciro Immobile and then the Italian’s dinky little creator Lorenzo Insigne added a third.
Giorgio Chiellini swept in for a fine clean sheet-saving tackle in the second minute of time added on at the end and the Italians were beginning to feel like Italy at a major tournament again. After their absence from the 2018 World Cup finals, Mancini’s Italy rebuild looks promising. This was their 28th straight game without defeat, coming close to the national team’s record of 30 that has stood since the 1930s. They are not an outstanding proposition man-for-man when compared to some of the other big European nations but as a side with a shrewd approach, they will be difficult to beat. “We produced an excellent performance,” Mancini said later. “We didn’t allow Turkey to play. They are not a weak side. They have great players.”
It did not take long to recognize this will be a hard tournament, an energy-sapping slog for the players who survived the pandemic-compressed season of 2020-2021. The Italian organizing committee in Rome kept the opening ceremony simple: the great tenor Andrea Bocelli leaning on that summer tournament classic Nessun Dorma and a model car from the sponsors Volkswagen delivering the match-ball to the center circle. Someone check the emissions. Then it was down to the graft. How much could Italy throw at the deep-sitting Turks? How much pressure would be enough?
On a scale similar to the VW miniature car was the Italian No 10 Insigne who had the time and the ingenuity to pick a pass. There was lots of possession for an Italian side who pressed high up the pitch, still without arguably their most important player, the injured midfielder Marco Verratti. But their only serious first-half attempt on target was a header from Chiellini that Ugurcan Cakir tipped over the bar.
Even so, with Italy pressing high in the first half, they struggled to create chances. The Turkey defence looked relatively steady, although when they collapsed they did so swiftly. They were unlucky to concede the first. First, the left-back Umut Meras slipped over as Domenico Berardi approached him, which gave Italy’s winger the room to slam a ball in low and hard that Demiral could not adjust to in time. The cross cannoned in off the centre-half’s stomach. The goal was unfortunate but its effect on Turkey significant.
Senol Gunes, the Turkey manager recalled after his first spell in which he took the team to the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup, put a brave face on it afterwards. He pointed out that it was a defeat to a side playing at home in a tournament. “Italy used the pitch very well and physically we fell away in the game,” he said. Lots of talk about how qualification was not beyond his side, although the game against Wales on Wednesday in Baku now becomes critical.
Turkey conceded again on 66 minutes. It was Leonardo Spinazzola, free on the left side of the area, who might have scored but there was a good save from Cakir and Immobile, the Lazio striker on his home Olympic Stadium, reacted first and swept the ball in. “We are a team that plays good football and we have improved over the last few years,” Mancini said. “You don’t win matches by chance.”
The third Italy goal was a ball given away by Cakir, and then shifted quickly from right to left with three sweet passes to the right foot of Insigne, who shaped it round the Turkish goalkeeper. It was hard to know just what had happened to Turkey, who were overwhelmed by the end. Gunes had set out his plan to counterattack but Turkey never looked remotely dangerous on the break until Chiellini was called upon for that late intervention.
That tackle helped protect what was Italy’s ninth consecutive clean sheet in their last nine matches. Defensively this high-pressing team are still observing old Italian traditions. Chiellini is the oldest-ever outfield player to represent his country in a major tournament and there may well be sterner tests for him than this night.