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From the ignominy of failing to qualify for the World Cup in 2018 to being crowned European champions in 2021, Italy have indeed come full circle.

This proud football nation was clearly hit very hard by their World Cup qualifying debacle, and they have responded in the best possible way, bouncing back with a vengeance to conquer the continent.

The man at the centre of the Italian resurgence is Roberto Mancini.

Mancini’s Italy was all about balance and flexibility at the European championship. His Euro 2020 squad comprised a nice blend of youth and experience, while his tactics alternated between dashing flamboyance and rugged Italian efficiency.

Theirs was a team for all situations.

At the start of the tournament, most of the attention was on France, Belgium and England- they were the favourites on many betting sites in Ghana – while the Italians were considered dark horses at best.

Many were aware of their impressive winning streak heading into the Euros, but there was that lingering feeling that Italy wouldn’t quite have enough to take down the really big guns at the event.

How wrong that feeling was!

Italy laid down the gauntlet in the opening match of the tournament, dismissing a highly fancied Turkish team 3-0. That was followed by another impressive 3-0 victory over Switzerland; and the Azzurri were suddenly upgraded from dark horses to genuine contenders by most observers.

A 1-0 victory over Wales in their final group match tidied up a very satisfactory start to their campaign.

Italy faced their first real test of the competition in the Round of 16 against Austria, but helped by their firepower off the bench, they overcame Austrians in extra time to survive an almighty scare and dodge an embarrassing early exit.

Mancini’s men were stuck in the heavier side of the draw, with a quarter final against Belgium, and a semi-final against France or Spain to come. It was time to call on an old friend.

While they did not completely abandon the flair and panache that got them through the earlier rounds, the Italians battened down the hatches and adopted the defensive solidity they had become famous for over the years. Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci were warriors at the back, Jorginho and Marco Verratti were steady in midfield, while Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa provided the cutting edge upfront.

Italy battled past Belgium 2-1 in the quarter finals, before hanging on for a penalty shootout victory against Spain in the semis. It wasn’t pretty, especially against Spain, but it certainly got the job done.

Rattled by the concession of an early goal against England in the final, Italy took time to find their feet, but they stuck to their task gamely, and eventually got a deserved equaliser through Bonucci midway through the second half.

The Azzurri were the better team in the final, and kept their cool in the ensuing penalty shootout to earn just reward for their efforts.

Now that they have conquered Europe, their eyes will surely be firmly fixed on the World Cup in Qatar. They are already a formidable bunch, and if they stick together and keep improving, they will have as good a chance as anyone of taking the world title back to Rome!

www.sports24ghana.com

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