The ball looped over to Italy manager Roberto Mancini on the touchline, and with hands still in the pockets of his smart suit, he brought it down with a flick of his designer shoes. Azzurri legend-turned-assistant Gianluca Vialli, watching from the substitutes bench behind, rocked with laughter.
Italy are having a great time at Euro 2020.
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A 1-0 win over Wales in Rome on Sunday rounded off what has been a perfect group stage. While questions are being asked of the other contenders, doubts about Italy are dissipating by the day. Sterner tests lie in wait, but Mancini could not have asked for a better warm-up. By winning Group A as the first team in Euros history to win each group stage game without conceding a goal, Italy will face the runners-up from Group C in the round of 16 — likely to be either Ukraine or Austria — in London on Saturday.
They should be well rested, with Mancini able to make eight changes to his team’s starting lineup against Wales. Leonardo Bonucci — one of only three players to keep his place alongside Gianluigi Donnarumma and Jorginho — was only needed for 45 minutes. Donnarumma wasn’t required for the full 90 minutes either, and it was if Mancini — who lists not playing a minute of the 1990 World Cup among his greatest regrets as a player — was making a point of utilising as much of his squad as possible. There is harmony off the pitch as well as on it.
Even injury problems aren’t really problems, and before kickoff, captain Giorgio Chiellini, who was hampered by a hamstring issue during Italy’s victory over Switzerland on Wednesday, confirmed it is “nothing important.” Now on a 30-game unbeaten streak — equalling their record run between 1935 and 1939 — and without a goal conceded for more than 1,000 minutes, it is all going very smoothly for Italy. Nearly as smooth as Mancini looked trying to control that ball.
“We are happy, we are happy,” he said afterward. “But after the group stage, it is a new competition.
“The guys are very clever. They want to win every game. They have a good mentality. We changed eight, but played a very good game.
“Wales is a good team. It was very difficult to win, but I think we deserved to win.”
The only problems facing Mancini ahead of the knockout rounds are welcome ones.
Marco Verratti returned from a knee injury and took his opportunity to show why he should be playing when the real business begins. One clipped ball over the top of the Wales defence was just out of reach of a stretching Andrea Belotti and gratefully gathered by goalkeeper Danny Ward. Then it was the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder who won a free kick on the right, dusted himself off, and produced a clever low cross for Matteo Pessina to nudge in the only goal just before the break. Moments later Verratti popped up on the left and just missed Pessina with a pass that cut through the line of red shirts as if they weren’t there at all.
He had more touches, more completed passes and created more chances than anyone else on the pitch. More importantly, he was able to prove his fitness by completing 90 minutes, and Mancini has a decision to make about whether he can accommodate both Verratti and Manuel Locatelli, who was impressive against Switzerland, in his team for the next round. It’s not the worst dilemma to have.
Wales’ afternoon was a little more stressful, but even in defeat they got what they wanted. Despite Switzerland’s 3-1 win over Turkey in Baku, Rob Page’s side finished second in Group A and face a last-16 tie against either Belgium, Russia, Finland or Denmark in Amsterdam on Saturday.
Their hopes of denting Italy’s perfect record in the group appeared to end when Ethan Ampadu became the youngest player to receive a straight red card at a European Championship when he was sent off for a late challenge on Federico Bernardeschi after 55 minutes, although Gareth Bale had a golden chance to equalise but blazed his volley over the bar. Just like his missed penalty against Turkey, it didn’t matter, and Wales can carry on dreaming after a resilient defensive effort with 10 men.
“We knew it would be very difficult from the start,” said Bale. “A lot of running and defending, I am proud of the boys. We have made it through. We have to recover now and take the break and get ready to get going again.”