As the Azzurri floundered and failed in South Africa, it was left to the Azzurrini to provide the Italian nation with something at cheer about or at the very least restore some national pride, which they managed to do, and even more so if it weren’t for the great German machine.
Heading to the European U21 Championships in Sweden, the Italy U21 side were the favourites, along with England and Spain U21’s. Boasting an unbeaten qualifying record and an impressive group of youngsters, more of whom have been tried and tested this season in Serie A, the omens looked positive for the Azzurrini, who have won this tournament a record five times.
Several of coach Pierluigi Casiraghi’s players have this season broken through in for their respective Serie A clubs, Marco Motta has made the right-back slot at AS Roma his own, Domenico Criscito and Salvatore Bocchetti are stalwarts of the Genoa defence, Claudio Marchisio has shown for Juventus he can dominate a midfield, while the front trio of Sebastian Giovinco, Robert Acquafresca and Mario Balotelli are a fearsome prospect for any defence in Europe.
In a group that contained hosts Sweden, Serbia and Belarus, a semi-final place was all but assured for the Azzurrini, however a nil-nil draw with Serbia in the opening game may have led to some furrowing of eyebrows among the Italian nation. But, the positive from an opening day performance were that this U21 side looked a very exciting prospect coupled with some truly excellent players.
In the following game against Sweden the Italian defence held firm against an extremely talented Swedish attack, containing Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonin. A ten man Italy triumphed two-one, with two goals from Balotelli and Acquafresca assuring the Azzurrini of victory. Then a brace from Acquafresca propelled Italy from one-nil down to Belarus, to victory and subsequent first place in the final Group standings. A semi-final with unfancied Germany awaited.
Earlier in the day England played Sweden, and produced game of the tournament. Sweden coming back from three-nil down, only to lose on a penalty shootout. Italy vs. Germany had a lot to live up to.
Maybe lacking in goals the second semi-final was an enthralling game. German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer pulled off a string of top class, if unconventional saves as Italy totally dominated from start to finish, with only a momentary lapse that eventually cost them the match. Andreas Beck’s forty-eighth minute strike meant Germany would play England in the final.
Undeservingly the Azzurrini were dumped out of the competition. However, the performances of many Azzurrini throughout the tournament were a joy to behold.
The first to spring to mind has to be Giovinco, he terrorised defences in each match and unlucky not to get on the score sheet at all. It is clear from his performances, the ‘Atomic Ant’ is best used as a trequartista, operating just behind a front two. His incisive passing, endless running and eye for the unexpected led to him picking holes in all the defensive lines put in front of him. His attacking partners, Balotelli and Acquafresca had differing tournaments. Balotelli showed his amazing potential and tremendous skill, but also his fiery temper and ungainly attitude. Acquafresca on the other hand had a relatively successful tournament, bagging three goals and a man of the match performance against Belarus.
The midfield of Marchisio, Paolo De Cegile and Luca Cigarini demonstrated the benefits of a well balance centre. Combining defensive solidity and organisation with drive and creativity. Luca Cigarini being the standout pupil. His passing range, vision and set pieces distinct highlights, described as an heir apparent to Andrea Pirlo and on this evidence he is surly the only viable candidate.
For me, most praise must go to the defence. Andrea Consigli, Bochetti, Criscito, Marco Andreoli and Marco Motta were the most solid unit of the championship. Andreoli and Bocchetti were imperious as a defensive pairing, both acting as this own version on the ‘Berlin Wall’ they laid the solid foundation for many an Italy attack. Criscito was showing the form that has been with him all season. But it was Marco Motta who stole the show throughout the Azzurrini journey. Bombing down the right flank like a man possessed, as if single handedly wanting to claim the title for Italy. As team captain, showed authority and leadership, while containing opponent’s advances with precision timing and composure. This boy man (as Sir Paul would say) given a few years is certain to be attracting the interest of Real Madrid, who seem intent on buying the worlds best.
As the Confederations Cup left Italy desperate for any glimmer of hope internationally, a full-scale fireworks display blazed in Scandinavia. A few of these players could and should have been present in South Africa, where many others will most definitely be close to Marcelo Lippi’s thoughts. The future is bright, the future is Azzurri.