It’s difficult to believe that the 1998 World Cup in France was over 20 years ago, the tournament still fresh in the minds of many. That year, Italy embarked on their journey with a squad packed full of talent, names such as Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Roberto Di Matteo all selected by Coach Cesare Maldini.
Yet for all their promise and the expectations placed upon them, the Azzurri made a premature exit in the quarter-final to eventual winners France, with midfielder Luigi Di Biagio hitting the crossbar in the penalty shoot-out that saw Les Bleus advance on their way to the final.
Now, Di Biagio finds himself in a not-too dissimilar situation, as he leads Italy’s talent-laden Under-21 squad into the European Championship this week. The 48-year-old was appointed as boss of the youngsters in 2013, and has since failed to make an impression in previous tournaments.
Defeats in the group stage of the u-21 Euros in 2015 and in the semi-final of the same competition in 2017 have been forgiven as Di Biagio was allowed to continue with his work, however this time he simply must deliver a victory. Just like in 1998, his side is laden with talent, as senior squad boss Roberto Mancini has allowed some of the best young players from the national team make the drop down, in what represents their final chance to shine at this level.
Juventus star Moise Kean, Fiorentina’s highly-coveted winger Federico Chiesa (£1.55) and breakout Roma sensation Niccolo Zaniolo (£1.60) are all included in the squad alongside former Chelsea target Niccolo Barella (£1.06)). Furthermore, Italy are this year’s hosts alongside neighbours San Marino, increasing the pressure on Di Biagio to deliver on home soil.
— UEFA U21 EURO (@UEFAUnder21) June 12, 2019
“We have a duty to try and win it,” the Coach declared in a recent press conference. “I’m optimistic, and the fact we are playing at home can only be an advantage. The fans’ support will help us, and we will look to benefit from their enthusiasm.”
It’s clear that Di Biagio understands that this time round there can be no excuses, no near misses and nothing less than a win will suffice. Italy face a difficult group stage that includes Spain, Poland and Belgium, but the Azzurrini have all the tools necessary to triumph in Italy this year.
Many of the squad members already have plenty of Serie A first team experience with Alex Meret having made 21 total appearances for Napoli this season, while Gianluca Mancini, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Manuel Locatelli and Patrick Cutrone are all well-established names in the Italian top-flight.
“These are important years for the Nazionale at every level,” revealed former Juventus and AC Milan full-back Gianluca Zambrotta at a recent media event. “We are seeing significant progress, from the senior squad down to the Under-20s, and hope that the Under-21s will also now challenge for ambitions targets.”
“Italy are on the right track to being one of the best football nations in the world again.”
Those words from a man who won the World Cup with Italy in 2006 must hit home with the Under-21 boss. An expectant Italy is waiting and watching to see if he can maximise the output from this talented group in order that this storied footballing nation add another triumph to the history books.
This summer Luigi Di Biaggio must not allow another near miss like his one in France back in 1998.