After the dark days of Italy’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, Roberto Mancini’s side face Turkey in the European Championship curtain-raiser on Friday as one of the pre-tournament favourites.
The Azzurri go into the contest in Rome on the back of a 27-game unbeaten run having completed a remarkable turnaround under the former Manchester City boss.
Tears, international retirements, resignations and widespread condemnation accompanied their failure to reach a World Cup finals for the first time in 60 years.
BBC Sport examines how a nation at its lowest footballing ebb and a manager at a crossroads restored pride, forged a new identity and rediscovered a winning blend prior to their first tournament match on home soil since the 1990 World Cup.
‘Italy needed Mancini and he needed Italy’
Italy’s leading sports newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport called the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign “the end” and Corriere dello Sport’s headline likened it to “the Apocalypse”.
But six months after the departure of former boss Gian Piero Ventura and with the Azzurri still seemingly in limbo, Mancini stepped forward.
The 56-year-old came to the rescue after spells at Galatasaray and Zenit St Petersburg bookended an underwhelming return to Inter Milan.
“It looked as though he was doing the washed-up managerial tour and his time as a leading boss at the top of the game was gone. But Italy needed Mancini and he needed Italy,” says European football writer James Horncastle.
It proved a watershed moment and provided a surge of optimism.
“When he was appointed as the Italian national coach there was a lot of euphoria in the country that he was taking over because he is well respected in the game,” former Italy and Chelsea midfielder Roberto di Matteo tells BBC Sport.
“He’s a legend in Italy. I don’t think there was ever any doubt over his quality as a manager or around his coaching.”
His reign got under way with a low-key 2-1 victory over Saudi Arabia, followed by a five-game winless run. But since then Italy have been virtually unstoppable, with Mancini’s 74% win ratio the highest of any Italy head coach.
“It was a matter of having a charismatic leader and somebody who fans and players could look up to for what he has achieved,” adds Italian football writer Danielle Verri.
“He won league titles with City and Inter, he won the Coppa Italia with Fiorentina and Lazio and has done well everywhere he has been. He has good players but deserves credit for helping this side to develop and flourish.
“There has been a huge sense of positivity since he came in. You can see that in the attitude of the players at the training camps and those vibes are evident in the way they play.”
Breaking with tradition and blooding youth
Mancini’s pledge to deliver a “rebirth” began by discarding the conservative counter-attacking style that has helped the country lift four World Cups.
“It went against tradition but after not qualifying for the World Cup he could have probably done anything because that was such a low,” Di Matteo says.
“It has been very well received by fans. All his players are brave [on the ball] and play in teams that play progressive football, so it was the right thing to do.”
Italy’s bold approach in a fluid 4-3-3 formation has seen them score 53 goals in their past 17 games, while conceding just three.
There has also been a considerable emphasis placed on youth, with six of the squad to reach the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championship in 2017 blended in with old stagers like Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.
Mancini has also not been afraid to look past the traditional Italian giants in his search for players, handing a debut to a then 21-year-old Nicolo Barella, long before the midfielder switched from Cagliari to Inter.
More recently, Sassuolo’s 21-year-old forward Giacomo Raspadori – who has been compared to Italy great Paolo Rossi – became the 35th debutant of 67 players to feature during Mancini’s tenure.
Although not universally popular, Italy even produced a special green “renaissance” kit in October 2019, designed to celebrate their numerous emerging talents.
“It just shows the strength in depth and the quality of the new crop of players that have come through from the Under-21s and in Serie A,” says Di Matteo.
Are Italy genuine Euros contenders?
Italy’s tag as one of several favourites for the tournament appears justified given they qualified for the Euros with three games to spare and won all 10 matches in the process.
Brushing past the Netherlands, Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina to reach October’s Nations League finals was also another notable milestone for Mancini’s improving side.
And with the likes of 2020 European golden shoe winner Ciro Immobile and several of an exciting attacking supporting cast in fine form, Di Matteo says there “is a quiet confidence” they could advance towards a first major final since Euro 2012.
“Barella had an outstanding season and Juventus winger Federico Chiesa is a great talent,” adds the former Chelsea manager.
“He can turn a game around on its own. He could be one that turns out as a surprise because I’m not sure many people know all about him.
“Immobile has scored goals for fun in the past two to three years and obviously you have Lorenzo Insigne, Domenico Berardi and Andrea Belotti. There is plenty of firepower.”
Mancini also has the luxury of a world-class midfield, with Champions League winner Jorginho and Paris St-Germain playmaker Marco Verratti capable of dictating the play.
“There are few teams that can match Italy in that department,” Verri adds.
“Barella has the running power and there are still the likes of Federico Bernardeschi, Manuel Locatelli and Bryan Cristante if they need to alter.”