European U21 Championship 2015: Italy Team Guide
The 2015 European U21 Championship kicks off on June 17 in Prague, giving us football fans a welcome reprieve from tedious summer transfer links and a lack of competitive domestic football.
This exciting tournament is where some of tomorrow's stars announce themselves, and the squads selected for it ooze class and quality. In 2013, Thiago Alcantara, Isco, Asier Illarramendi and more all shone as Spain decimated all before them, but who will catch the eye this year?
B/R is previewing each of the eight nations competing, and we're continuing the series with Italy.
Link to the series:
All statistics, fixture details and results via UEFA.com unless otherwise noted.
With thanks to Matteo Bonetti (@TheCalcioGuy) for his assistance and expertise during research.
Road to the Finals
Italy managed to edge the toughest group of the lot, besting both Belgium and Serbia by two points and ending the campaign with an impressive tally of 18. They also managed to secure the best goal difference by a distance.
Things started inauspiciously with a home loss to Belgium, but a three-game winning streak to end the qualifying phase, coupled with key losses elsewhere, took them top spot.
Italy 1-3 Belgium
Cyprus 0-2 Italy
Belgium 0-1 Italy
Italy 3-0 Northern Ireland
Serbia 1-0 Italy
Northern Ireland 0-2 Italy
Italy 3-2 Serbia
Italy 7-1 Cyprus
As a seeded nation for the play-offs, Italy drew Slovakia and dispensed with them with relative ease. An away goal from Andrea Belotti in the first leg secured a 1-1 draw and a likely Azzurri triumph, and they hammered home the advantage with a 3-1 win in Reggio Emilia a few days later.
Italy's European Under-21 Championship squad has been confirmed by the Azzurri's official Twitter account. Luigi Di Biagio's final 23 is as follows:
Defenders: Matteo Bianchetti (Verona), Cristiano Biraghi (Internazionale), Davide Zappacosta (Atalanta), Stefano Sabelli (Bari), Daniele Rugani (Juventus), Alessio Romagnoli (Roma), Federico Barba (Empoli) and Armando Izzo (Genoa).
Midfielders: Cristian Battochio (Watford), Federico Viviani (Roma), Lorenzo Crisetig (Internazionale), Daniele Baselli (Atalanta), Marco Benassi (Torino), Stefano Sturaro (Juventus) and Danilo Cataldi (Lazio).
Manager Profile: Luigi Di Biagio
Luigi Di Biagio was coaching the Italy U20s two summers ago and will have watched on as the U21 side, led by Devis Mangia, fumbled their way to the final of the 2013 tournament. The results were good—bar being outclassed by Spain—but the performances weren't, and the Azzurri were fortunate to play in a weakened field.
Upon completion of the tournament, Di Biagio was swiftly promoted to take Mangia's place. He won his first game 4-1 against Slovakia to announce his arrival in style.
The generation LDB has had to work with is far superior to the one Mangia was given; where the former has Domenico Berardi, Stefano Sturaro, Alessio Romagnoli and Daniele Rugani, the latter had Fabio Borini and Andrea Bertolacci.
A pragmatic, controlled destroyer as a player, Di Biagio has defied his playing style to create a more open, goal-hungry side. Perhaps having the best central-defensive duo in the competition has given the other players a platform upon which they can express themselves.
They're going to be a good watch.
Star Player: Domenico Berardi
Italy boast a wealth of quality in every area of the team, but goals win games, and that's where the nation have fallen a little short in the youth ranks in recent times. In 2013, the defence looked pretty reasonable, but the firepower up front fizzled out far too early.
Andrea Belotti was the top scorer in qualifying for the Azzurri with six goals in nine games, and he will be flanked by Juventus dynamo Domenico Berardi for this tournament. The wide forward has spent the last two seasons on loan at Sassuolo affirming himself as one of Serie A's most sparkling talents.
Much of Italy's play will end up at Berardi's quick feet, asking him to duck in off the flank and fire off shots on goal. He's nimble, fast and stands a seasoned professional compared to some of those he will come up against in the Czech Republic.
Every team needs a difference-maker, and Berardi is Di Biagio's ace in the hole.
One to Watch: Andrea Belotti
As B/R's Allan Jiang aptly summarised, Andrea Belotti is facing a big 12 months. He's tasked with replacing Paulo Dybala as the main man at Palermo, but he first has to negotiate a summer tournament in which he is his nation's focal point.
As previously mentioned, he notched six goals in nine qualifying matches to help Italy into the tournament proper. He's an opportunistic finisher, a grafter—born out of rejections earlier in his career—and a good header of the ball too.
Belotti will be under pressure this summer, and it stands as a dry run before he takes the mantle on the island of Sicily in 2015-16. Can he rise to the fore once again?
European Under-21 Championship Record
Italy have won the European Under-21 Championship an eye-popping five times, lifting the trophy in 1992, 1994, 1996, 2000 and 2004. The 2004 vintage boasted Daniele De Rossi, Angelo Palombo and Andrea Barzagli.
They've also finished as runners-up twice, most recently in 2013, and they have reached an impressive five semi-finals. The Azzurri have undoubted pedigree in this tournament.
Team Record at the European Under-21 Championship
Group-stage finish: 1
Failed to qualify: 2
Match 1: Italy vs. Sweden
Venue: Andruv Stadion, Olomouc
Date: June 18, 2015
Time: 5 p.m. BST
Match 2: Italy vs. Portugal
Venue: Mestsky Fotbalovy Stadion, Uherske Hradiste
Date: June 21, 2015
Time: 7:45 p.m. BST
Match 3: England vs. Italy
Venue: Andruv Stadion, Olomouc
Date: June 24, 2015
Time: 7:45 p.m. BST