MILAN (AP) — Italy’s impressive form is posing problems for coach Roberto Mancini.
Who to leave behind next year for the European Championship?
The Azzurri signed off their qualifying campaign in style on Monday, beating Armenia 9-1 for their biggest win in 71 years.
For the first time, Italy had seven different goalscorers. Three of them — Nicolò Zaniolo, debutant Riccardo Orsolini, Federico Chiesa — opened their international accounts.
“They’re all young lads who are improving match by match,” Mancini said. “We have six months to prepare for the European Championship, we have to improve a few things, and then the difficulty will be to unfortunately leave someone at home who deserves to be there.”
The 20-year-old Zaniolo, who also plays on the wing, was used up front for the first time by Italy along with Ciro Immobile and Chiesa, and scored twice.
“I’m very happy, I made another dream come true, but I know I still have to improve,” Zaniolo said. “I’m happy both on the wing and as an inside forward, but wherever I have to play, I’ll play, and I’ll always try to give my all.
“If the call-up for Euro 2020 comes I would achieve another dream.”
Monday’s result was just shy of Italy’s biggest ever win — a 9-0 victory over the United States in 1948 — but a slew of other records did tumble.
Not only was it the first time seven different players scored in an Italy match, it was also the first time Italy completed a qualifying campaign — for either a European Championship or a World Cup — with a perfect record, and the first time the Azzurri recorded 10 successive victories in a calendar year.
It was also a record-extending 11th successive victory for the national side. That run started a year ago with a 1-0 victory over the United States, thanks to a last-minute goal from Matteo Politano.
That friendly came just over a year after Italy’s embarrassing failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, leading to the dismissal of Gian Piero Ventura and the hiring of Mancini, six months later.
Things took a while to click as Italy managed just two wins in Mancini’s first eight matches, and it didn’t score more than one goal in any of those games.
Italy put in an impressive performance in its last UEFA Nations League match against Portugal but failed to find the back of the net in a scoreless draw at home. Italy sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport screamed from a front-page headline “Where are the goals?”
Italy responded. Victory against the United States came days later and that was to be the last time the Azzurri scored less than two goals in a match.
Italy went on to score 37 goals in its 10 qualifying matches, tied for the most with England. Italy conceded just four, which was bettered by only three other sides.
Some may point to the quality of the opposition but Italy has often beaten so-called smaller teams by narrow margins. The current team’s attacking desire from the first to the last minute has attracted new fans — and been a delight to be part of.
“Honestly, I’ve never enjoyed myself so much in the national team, and the results show it,” said captain Leonardo Bonucci, who has won almost 100 caps for Italy since making his international debut in March 2010.
“We’ve dominated all the matches. Obviously, every now and again we risk conceding something but we’re scoring goals and playing good football and you have fun when you have so much possession. It’s a new era for the national team.”
For Italy’s Brazil-born midfielder Jorginho there are echoes of his home country.
“There’s something of Brazil here: An attacking mentality, enjoying ourselves, and always trying to score,” said Jorginho, who came to Italy when he was 15.
“We could have taken our foot off the gas but ... we continued playing to enjoy our football and entertain the crowd. It was a really great night.”
The draw for Euro 2020 will be made on Nov. 30 and the true test for Mancini’s Italy will come against stronger opponents. But, for the moment, it’s just like watching Brazil.