Image Source: Nazionale Calcio (CC BY 2.0)
For the first time since 1958, Italy are not participating in a World Cup competition. The four-time winners of the world crown failed to qualify for the tournament after being defeated by Sweden in their play-off clash. Their loss continued the Azzurri's fall from grace after triumphing in Germany 2006 after being knocked out at the group stage in back-to-back competitions.
Watching the World Cup without their side present at the tournament will be a new experience for many Italian fans and not one they will want to repeat for Qatar 2022. The first step of improving their side comes in the UEFA Nations League, where new manager Roberto Mancini will be desperate for a strong start to his reign.
Italy remain one of the elite sides in Europe and have been drawn in Group B alongside European champions Portugal and Poland. It will be an early challenge for Mancini as he seeks to establish himself in his new role, although the Azzurri are currently backed by the football betting website Betway at 10/11 to defeat the Poles in their opening game at the Stadio Renato Dall'Ara in September. However, Robert Lewandowski and company will be hungry to atone for their early exit from the FIFA World Cup. We'll now look at the options for Mancini and his first squad for a competitive game with the Azzurri.
At The Back
Italy are entering a phase of transition where the quality of their side is trending towards the final third. Gianluigi Buffon's retirement leaves a huge void between the sticks, although Salvatore Sirigu is a more than capable replacement, while Gianluigi Donnarumma has plenty of potential, although he has not managed to develop as expected after making his debut at the age of 16. Donnarumma remains one for the future, but he could be the man to take Italy into the next World Cup should he display signs of improvement at the San Siro or elsewhere.
Defensively, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini will remain the lynchpins in the short-term, but the key area of development for Mancini will be to find replacements for the duo. Bonucci will be 35 by the time of the World Cup and could be on his last legs, while Chiellini will certainly be at 37 if he's still playing. Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli are the leading contenders to replace the veteran duo, while Mattia Caldara's progress is also worth monitoring. Romagnoli and Rugani have had issues taking the next step in their development, although playing alongside Bonucci and Chiellini at club level could have huge benefits in the long run.
The full-back positions appeared to be well stocked, with Chelsea duo Emerson Palmieri and Davide Zappacosta, while Mattia De Sciglio and Leonardo Spinazzola are also available. Italy usually operate with a back three, although that could change under Mancini, making creativity more essential from the full/wing-backs. The Azzurri have that in abundance, certainly with the two Chelsea players.
The Final Third
Midfielders have emerged to solve Italy's creativity issue in the final third. Marco Verratti remains the outstanding player in the middle of the park, despite his issues with consistency and injuries during his career. By the time of the next World Cup, he will be 29, the pressure is on the Paris Saint-Germain to take charge of the Azzurri midfield to be the playmaker.
He will have talent around him as Jorginho's development at Napoli has seen him become one of the most-sought midfielders on the transfer market with a move to the Premier League and Manchester City mooted. If Pep Guardiola wants him – the 26-year-old has a lot going for him. Add Lorenzo Pellegrini and Bryan Cristante into the mix, who are both in their early twenties, then there is more than enough talent to occupy the middle of the park. That's without the old stagers, Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva, whose time is probably at an end in the national team after the failure to qualify for the World Cup.
Options in the final third were Italy's downfall at the last 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016. However, there are a lot of promising attackers coming through the ranks to dislodge the old guard. Andrea Belotti leads the way due to his outstanding goal record in Serie A. His last campaign was not quite as clinical as his 2016/17 season when he notched 26 goals in the league.
Belotti's form has seen him linked with almost every leading club in Europe and that could be the spark to turn him into an elite forward. Matteo Politano and Domenico Berardi are two promising players emerging at Sassuolo, while Federico Chiesa and Patrick Cutrone have impressed at Fiorentina and Milan respectively. There's a lot to be excited about for Mancini about his options in the final third.