Defending champion Italy heads to Euro 2024 after failing again to qualify for the World Cup

Wed, Jun 5, 2024
Soccer News (AP)

Defending champion Italy heads to Euro 2024 after failing again to qualify for the World Cup

MILAN (AP) - Just like last time, Italy is heading to the European Championship after the embarrassment of failing to qualify for the World Cup.

Last time, Italy won it all.

That's created expectations this time that coach Luciano Spalletti is trying to downplay.

"Whatever the result, I want Italians to be proud of us. We want to be a positive example of belonging and Italianness," Spalletti says. "This country needs it and we want to prove that we are aware of it."

Following the national disgrace of missing out on the 2018 World Cup, Italy approached Euro 2021 as an evolving unstoppable force under then-coach Roberto Mancini. The Italians were unbeaten in 27 matches heading into the tournament and stretched that to 37 until its record run was ended by Spain three months after the Euros in the Nations League semifinals.

For Euro 2024, which starts on June 14 in Germany, Spalletti has a similar mission of success after the team failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Italy has lost just one of its last 10 fixtures.

"We want to show we're up to the task, regardless of how the games will trace our stories and our destinies," Spalletti says. "This is the best guarantee that we aspire to."

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However, there are serious questions about the level of his squad compared to the team that beat England in a shootout in the Euro 2021 final at Wembley Stadium in London.

What is not in doubt is the quality of its coach.

In Spalletti, Italy has a more-than-adequate replacement for Mancini, who quit his role last August, less than a month before some crucial Euro 2024 qualifiers, and went on to take charge of Saudi Arabia.

Spalletti was the coach who masterminded Napoli's spectacular Serie A title run last year. That was Napoli's first league championship in three decades - since the glory days of Diego Maradona - and the southern team won in thrilling style.

He has brought that sparkle back to the national team, which was sometimes criticized for dropping in intensity after taking the lead and putting in drab performances. A newfound attacking flair helped Italy to turn around its qualifying campaign and finish second in its group.

Italy earned its spot at Euro 2024 with a tense 0-0 draw against Ukraine. Both teams created plenty of chances while Italy stayed devoted to Spalletti's all-action, attacking style despite needing only a draw to advance.

Now Italy has the chance to defend its title.

"Being reigning champions is a motivation," Spalletti says. "Even the Azzurri under Mancini in 2021 were not the strongest on paper. Then they became a special team."

Only nine players from the triumphant Euro 2021 squad will likely make the trip to Germany, but Italy can rely on another winning backbone. Five players from the Inter Milan team that ran away with the Serie A championship will be key.

Midfielder Nicolo Barella and defenders Federico Dimarco and Alessandro Bastoni have long been key for their club and their country. Barella and Bastoni were also part of Italy's triumph three years ago. Matteo Darmian and Davide Frattesi are also likely to have roles.

Spalletti wants his players to feel proud to don the blue jersey and has warned he will kick out "those who think that the national team is just a little game."

That was evident when he dropped Gianluca Scamacca for some friendlies in March, reportedly because the Atalanta forward had a video game obsession, staying awake all night playing on his console.

Scamacca responded by scoring nine goals in his next 13 matches and helping Atalanta win the Europa League. He could fill Italy's gaping hole at center forward, along with Argentina-born striker Mateo Retegui.

Italy will open the tournament against Albania on June 15 in Dortmund and then face Spain and Croatia.

"Now," Spalletti says with a broad smile, "comes the fun part."


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