It was the Under-21 European Championships in 2000 that launched the international careers of a number of Italian youngsters who would go on to play crucial roles in helping the Azzurri lift the World Cup in 2006.
Two of them, Andrea Pirlo and Rino Gattuso, announced themselves on the international stage as the Azzurrini overcame the Czech Republic 2-1 in the final, with Pirlo scoring both goals and being named the UEFA Golden Player of the Tournament.
Many believe the 2013 version is the strongest squad the country has assembled since then and the Italian Football Federation has put its full weight of support behind coach Devis Mangia’s team in the hope of adding to its proud record of five titles overall.
Cesare Prandelli has left Mangia with some of the exciting talents who were on the fringes of the squad for the upcoming Confederations Cup in Brazil.
The players to watch out for pack the midfield and attack and have all received call-ups to the full squad throughout the season:
Marco Verratti of Paris St. Germain has already played in the Champions League quarter-finals and more than held his own against the Barcelona midfield. Coming into the tournament with a French Ligue 1 title in his first season in France, having only ever played for Pescara in Serie B although he was a member of Zdenek Zeman’s promotion side, the 20-year-old is considered the heir apparent to Andrea Pirlo.
Alessandro Florenzi has had an equally eventful season, with the 22-year-old left-sided midfielder making his breakthrough for his hometown club AS Roma. With his non-stop running and never-say-die attitude he was one of the few bright spots in the Giallorossi’s disappointing campaign.
Luca Marrone found it difficult to break into Juventus’ star-studded midfielder but the powerfully built 23-year-old demonstrated his versatility when called upon to play in the centre of defence. However, it is in the holding role that he really stands out with his sure passing and positional sense.
Added to that there is the livewire Andrea Bertolacci who although owned by AS Roma was loaned to struggling Genoa where he played as a linkman between in midfield and attack.
It is in attack where Mangia is really spoilt for choice. Lorenzo Insigne was a team-mate of Veratti’s at Pescara before returning to Napoli to be eased into a side that already boasted a rapier-like attack led by Edinson Cavani. Standing at just 5ft4 he is a buddle of energy very much in the Sebastian Giovinco style of quick feet, but with a surer eye for goal.
Mattia Destro has had to deal with the weight of a 15million euro price tag after his summer move to AS Roma. A knee operation did not help the rangy striker’s settling in period but he did shine in the Italian Cup where he finished the competition as the top goalscorer on five goals. Tall and lean, the 22-year-old is considered the best out-and-out frontman since Christian Vieri.
Heading out of Rome as Destro arrived was Fabio Borini who was coming off an excellent season in the capital. A move to Liverpool has had its up and downs due to injury but Prandelli decided that a full return to the all-action style would be better served leading the Under-21 attack down the left where he dovetails neatly with Florenzi.
Pushing that trio for a starting place are Manolo Gabbiadini who is coming off an injury-hit season and has scored 10 times in 19 outings at this level; Ciro Immobile is Juventus owned but battled-hardened after a season at strugglers Genoa and is a perfect alternative to Destro; Alberto Paloschi is a goal-getter in the manner of his hero Filippo Inzaghi but with none of the histrionics. Having come through the AC Milan ranks, he is coming off a seven-goal season with Chievo and was a member of the under-21 side at the 2009 tournament at the age of 19.
While going forward, Italy look unstoppable the defence is made up more of honest artisans than artists. The side is captained by the no-nonsense Luca Caldirola who came through the Inter youth ranks and has represented his country at every level.
While Caldirola has being learning his craft in Serie B on loan with Brescia and Cesena his defensive partner Marco Capuano has faced Serie A’s best in the heart of Pescara’s leaky defence but at 21 he will not be in the lower league come the start of next season.
Italy have always had a rich tradition of goalkeepers who have made the step up to the full squad and Francesco Bardi is another. The 21-year-old is also owned by Inter but has had a safe as houses season with Novara in Serie B.
Coach Mangia has played to the strengths of his team and while the defenders job is very much in the tradition of Italian defenders – first to the ball and get it away from the danger zone – if Italy are allowed possession in through the midfield area then they cause plenty of damage down the flanks. Problems can arise against more physical sides but they can be navigated through possession and intelligent movement off the ball.
Mangia is only 38 but he has had experience at the sharp-end of Serie A at Palermo, having taken Varese to the Serie B play-offs, and knows the valuable of sound team-work. Although the squad is filled with a number of stars in the making it is not only genuine quality but a sense of “togetherness” that can take these young Italians all the way.
England offer a tricky opener in a group that also hosts two other physically stronger sides Israel and Norway, but there is enough talent when the ball is kept on the ground to see Italy through.
Prediction: Italy 2-1 England.