Staggering in itself, this outcome was made doubly unthinkable by the Netherlands – finalists and bronze-medalists at the previous two editions – also missing out. And it was Sweden – sturdy, well-drilled but devoid of star players – who had claimed the scalps of these World Cup heavyweights.
For Italy, the enduring the image of their play-off defeat was an inconsolable Gianluigi Buffon leaving the field in tears. For the Dutch, it was Dick Advocaat scoffingly dismissing as “stupid” the suggestion that the Swedes could put eight goals past Luxembourg – and being proved all too wrong.
Changes were inevitable and, for both sides, the significant alterations of recent years have had the desired effect. Now, as a new FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign beckons, the Oranje and Azzurri arrive as altogether more formidable prospects.
Roberto Mancini has spoken of facing “a big problem”. It is, however, the kind that every coach desires: selecting a team, and squad, from scores of players who merit inclusion.
“It was already going to be difficult before, but in the last few months players are coming through and have proved to be excellent,” said Mancini, who blooded a number of youngsters in Italy’s triumphant 2020/21 UEFA Nations League group campaign.
Marcello Lippi has lauded the former Manchester City manager for “recovering the beautiful image of Italy’s football”, while Tite – in an interview withFIFA.com – compared Mancini to Arrigo Sacchi and praised the “beautiful” style he has implemented.
“We have tried to become more offensive with our play,” explained the man himself. “You have to have the right mentality to do so and have a style of play that all the great teams have. In Italy, we never lacked the players. We just had to give them confidence and a chance to play.”
Qualified for UEFA EURO 2020 without dropping a single point, scoring 37 goals across ten matches and conceding just four.
Set a new national record for games won in a calendar year.
Emerged from UEFA Nations League 2020/21 Group A1 as unbeaten section winners.
A 4-3-3 formation has become the norm but it’s the switch to playing on the front foot, attacking and dominating the opposition, that has underpinned the Mancini revolution.
Federico Chiesa didn’t have his doubters to seek when made the big move to Juventus. But this dynamic and intelligent wide man has silenced those sceptics by emerging as a star man for both club and country. Mancini, who played alongside Enrico Chiesa at Sampdoria, has praised Federico for having “more running” than his father and fellow Azzurri international.
Northern Ireland (H), 25.03
Bulgaria (A), 28.03
Lithuania (A), 31.03
While Italy’s gains have all been posted under Mancini, the Dutch were revived by a coach who is no longer in the post. Ronald Koeman oversaw a spectacular transformation in a team that had failed to qualify for each of the two most recent major tournaments, with Virgil van Dijk, Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay among several stars to emerge.
Koeman’s departure for Barcelona threatened, for a time, to derail that progress. Brows certainly became furrowed when his replacement, Frank de Boer, set an unwanted new record by failing to win any of his first four games in charge.
But recent results – draws against Italy and Spain followed by back-to-back wins over Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina – ensure that the Dutch head into the World Cup qualifiers with a renewed sense of self-confidence.
Advanced to the 2019 UEFA Nations League final, beating France, Germany and England en route.
Qualified for their first major tournament in three attempts by reaching UEFA EURO 2020.
The 4-3-3 formation that was once a Dutch trademark has all but been abandoned, with De Boer – like his predecessor – favouring a 4-2-3-1 set-up and a dynamic, counter-pressing style.
Player to Watch
Van Dijk, a classy, composed and commanding captain, remains sorely missed, while Frenkie de Jong has been lauded as “the engine” of this Dutch team. But it is the man who paid De Jong that compliment, Memphis Depay, who brings this new-look Oranje its attacking potency. Once described by De Boer as a player “who has everything”, Depay dazzled in EURO 2020 qualifying, scoring six goals and creating another eight.