5 years of Roberto Mancini
27 May 2023
Sunday, March 26, 2023
Italy have bounced back from their defeat to England in Naples and got their first three points in EURO 2024 qualifying by beating Malta 2-0, thanks to Mateo Retegui's second consecutive goal and one from Matteo Pessina.
Against Malta, ranked 167th in the FIFA World rankings, Mancini made eight changes, putting his faith in the lively duo, Gnonto and Politano. It was a move to give Italy fresh impetus and energy, and get more supply up to Retegui, who was often found isolated against the English. An injury to Gnonto after 20 minutes, forcing him to be replaced by Grifo, only partly altered Head Coach Roberto Mancini's plans. The game soon went in Italy's favour, first thanks to the Argentinian-born striker, who confirmed his goalscoring instincts in the box. Mancini's gamble in playing him, with forwards lacking in this period, has certainly come off. Pessina's goal doubled the Azzurri's lead and gave them their first win in 2023, and their ninth out of nine contests against the Maltese. Italy momentarily sit joint-second in Group C, alongside North Macedonia, and behind leaders England who, after the 2-1 win in Naples, beat Ukraine 2-0.
Qualification for EURO 2024, which sees the top two automatically go through to the Finals, now sees a break for a Italy, with them next in action in September when they will visit North Macedonia, before hosting Ukraine. Before then, the Azzurri will look to lift their second trophy in the Mancini era as they take part in the Nations League semi-final mid-June, facing Spain on 18 June in Rotterdam, and a potential Final against either the Netherlands or Croatia.
THE MATCH. A second game in the space of three days saw eight changes to the starting eleven, with Donnarumma, Di Lorenzo and Retegui the only remaining starters from the game with England. Setting up in a 4-3-3 system, there was a newly-formed central defensive pairing of Romagnoli and Scalvini, while on the left Emerson replaced Spinazzola. There was a completely new midfield in Tonali, Cristante and Pessina, giving protection and physicality to compensate for a lighter front trio, with Politano and Gnonto called in to provide some unpredictability, and to get past players, in order to provide ammunition for Retegui. It was an Italy similar to the one seen in the second half against the Three Lions, that nearly saw them fight back to earn a draw. And that was Mancini's rallying call in the build-up to the game: he wanted to see the team from that second half.
The pattern of play was predicatable, with the home side condeding possession to the Azzurri and getting ten men behind the ball. After 4 minutes, though, the first big chance of the game fell to Malta: a long ball up top by Mbong ended up perfectly to Satariano, who shrugged off both Romagnoli and Scalvini and shot powerfully, but centrally, at goal from the penalty-spot area; Donnarumma tipped over for a corner. With the threat over, Italy took back control and took the lead on the quarter-hour mark, again through new arrival Mateo Retegui, who from Tonali's corner got away from his marker, Maltese captain Borg, and headed home his second goal in as many games. Two chances, two goals for the Tigre striker: not bad! Soon after, Mancini lost Gnonto through injury, being replaced by Grifo. After 27 minutes, Itay doubled their lead courtesy of Matteo Pessina, who turned in Emerson's low cross in from the left from close range, grabbing his fifth goal in 16 caps for the senior team; he is another player who rarely misses when in front of goal. Not long after, it was Pessina again in the thick of the action setting up Grifo, but the Freiburg forward only found Bonello. The game was being played in only one half, with the Azzurri finding a couple of other nice, fast moves, but without ever excelling and showing their full control of the game.
In the second half, Matteo Darmian came on for Di Lorenzo, in his first appearance for five years wearing the Azzurri shirt. Malta pressed high, and were close to grabbing a goal back after a melee in the box from a corner, but they never looked like having the tools to worry the Italians. Verratti and Scamacca took the place of Tonali and Retegui, and the West Ham forward, still on the hunt for his first goal for the National side, was straight into the action with an acrobatic bicycle kick that was well-saved by Bonello. Politano was looking the most lively, and for this reason most of the Azzurri's best play came from the right, while the hosts were limited to a couple of counter-attacks without showing any real desire to make them count. The tempo of the game slowly drifted away before the Bulgarian referee, Kabakov, eventually blew for the final whistle, with the feeling that the game had finished much earlier. But the most important thing was that Italy returned back to winning ways and got the three points in the bag.