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Roberto Mancini has looked outside the box with his Italy squad

Roberto Mancini has looked outside the box with his Italy squad

The former Manchester City manager has traveled around the country in a refreshing change from his predecessors.

WITH the new Serie A season now in full swing, fans and journalists alike have enjoyed seeing how each team looks in the 2018/19 campaign. Many coaches and players have moved, and assessing how they integrate into life at their new clubs in the first few months plays a major role in how those sides will be viewed as the year progresses.

For those who look beyond the team they support, one familiar face has repeatedly popped up at various stadia around the peninsula, Roberto Mancini looking very much like an interested observer at a number of matches already. Appointed as the new “Commissario tecnico" of the Italian national side back in May, he has already been present at games in Rome, Turin and Milan, casting his eye over the men who might form part of his squad for the UEFA Nations League which gets underway later this week.

Of course, Mancini’s first group of 31 players contains many unsurprising names including new Captain Giorgio Chiellini and his Juventus team-mate Leonardo Bonucci, Chelsea midfielder Jorginho and Napoli forward Lorenzo Insigne. Milan trio Gianluigi Donnarumma, Giacomo Bonaventura and Alessio Romagnoli – the latter arguably Serie A’s most in-form defender – all made the cut once again, as did Torino striker Andrea Belotti who has led the line for Italy over the last 12 months.

But with the Azzurri failing to qualify for last summer’s World Cup, a number of veterans called time on their international careers, Gigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi among those making clear that they no longer wish to be considered for selection. Their retirements – alongside the team’s poor performances under previous boss Gian Piero Ventura – meant some new faces were inevitable, but Mancini’s extensive travel schedule has seemingly paid dividends in this regard.

Perhaps the best example of this is Fiorentina left-back Cristiano Biraghi. The 26-year-old has never been called up by the full national team before, his journeyman career taking in spells with Inter, Catania, Chievo, Granada and Pescara before his signed for La Viola ahead of the 2017/18 season. In that campaign, he was almost an ever-present under Stefano Pioli, proving himself to be a reliable defender who could also press forward and contribute to the attack whenever the opportunity arose.

Indeed, among all defenders in Serie A, Biraghi ranked behind only Aleksandar Kolarov of AS Roma in terms of both chances created and accurate crosses, yet was never discussed in the same glowing terms as the Serbian. The Fiorentina man also made 2.3 tackles, 1.2 interceptions and 2.3 clearances per 90 minutes while connecting with over 85% of his total passes, his all-round play making him a stand-out performer in a defence that had to cope with the tragic loss of Davide Astori in mid-season.

There is little doubt that he deserves the recognition that comes with such a call up, particularly in a position where Italy has so few options who play regularly. With neither Davide Zappacosta or Emerson Palmieri featuring much for Chelsea and Leonardo Spinazzola injured, the left-back role is there for the taking and Mancini deserves credit for being aware of an overlooked player performing at such a consistently high level.

“Our use of Italians has never been so low, so we have to try something different. That’s why I’ve called up certain players,“ Mancini said at a press conference this week, where he explained why he had included names like Biraghi. “Having said that, I believe there are some very good Italians around, certainly better than many of the foreigners who play in their places.”

The same applies to Cagliari goalkeeper Alessio Cragno, former Atalanta midfielder Bryan Cristante and – despite his vastly higher level of fame – Mario Balotelli. All were ignored by Ventura, but there is little doubt that each has earned their place in the squad after carrying the excellent form they showed throughout last term into the new campaign.

With Mancini clearly willing to get out and see them in action, players like these can dream of pulling on the Azzurri shirt and know their excellent displays will not be in vain. Italy needs players playing regularly at a high level, and are beginning to search beyond the usual suspects of Juve, Milan, Inter and Roma in order to find them.

It’s about time, but finally the national team has a manager who will go to the Stadio Artemio Franchi for Fiorentina-Udinese and then use what he sees when selecting his squad. Perhaps, because his own career was played out first at Bologna and then Sampdoria, the new boss is making sure those who play for the peninsula’s provincial sides are no longer ignored.

In short, Roberto Mancini is watching.







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Adam Digby
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