Gladiators on fire


Having a blast: Italy’s Manuel Locatelli shooting to score the second goal against Switzerland at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. — AFP

ROME: Roberto Mancini has said it took “the end of the world” for him to become Italy coach but his side now appear to be in a brave new world following a classy 3-0 win over Switzerland on Wednesday that propelled them into the Euro 2020 knockouts.

After laying down a marker with a stunning second-half display in their opener to beat Turkey 3-0, Italy matched that scoreline but produced an even more assured performance.

Manuel Locatelli was an unlikely figure to give Italy the lead in the first half when he started then finished off a sweeping attack down the right wing and then scored again after the break before striker Ciro Immobile adorned another magical night at the Stadio Olimpico by netting late on.

Locatelli, who had never scored twice in a game before, was the symbol of a side short on household names but bursting with talent who are making their mark at Euro 2020 after their miserable failure to qualify for the last World Cup.

Italy’s limp playoff defeat to Sweden in November 2017 ensured they failed to reach a World Cup for the first time since 1958 and prompted much soul-searching, with coach Gian Piero Ventura painted as the scapegoat and booted out.

Mancini, a Premier League and Serie A winner with Manchester City and Inter Milan but who has often been criticised for being too defensive, was an unlikely figure to lead the revolution the country was crying out for, but he has proved an inspired choice.

Italy players celebrate their 3-0 win which took them into the last 16. — AFPItaly players celebrate their 3-0 win which took them into the last 16. — AFP

Italy may have shed their old defence-first persona under previous coaches such as Antonio Conte, but Mancini has taken them to the next level, building a hyper-pressing team that suffocate opponents in their own half.

Mancini may have kept faith with seasoned gladiators such as Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, who have a combined age of 70 and were the only survivors of the defeat to Sweden who played against Switzerland, along with Immobile and Jorginho.

But his side also sparkles with players boasting courage and athleticism.

Their opening goal against Switzerland was made by a combination of skill, pace and quick-thinking from Domenico Berardi down the right flank, beating a Swiss defender by the byline before arrowing a low pass at the feet of Sassuolo teammate Locatelli, who had started the move.

Locatelli, who struck again with a deadly strike from outside the area, has performed so well that Italy have barely missed their one star name in Marco Verratti, who was forced to sit out both their opening games due to injury.

Berardi was a handful for the Swiss down the right wing all game while leftback Leonardo Spinazzola, one of the best players against Turkey, was equally dangerous down the other flank, making Italy an unpredictable and terrifying side who became the first to book their place in the last 16.

No team will look forward to meeting them next. — Reuters

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