MILAN (AP) - From soccer flops to the brink of making history, Italy has come a long way in the two years since its embarrassing failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Italy had already qualified for the 2020 European Championship - with three matches to spare - but Tuesday’s 5-0 win at Liechtenstein saw the Azzurri match the national team’s record of nine straight wins set under Vittorio Pozzo between 1938-39.
Victory against Bosnia-Herzegovina next month will establish a new all-time mark for the Azzurri.
“I’m not interested in the record for consecutive wins, it would mean more to win two World Cups and an Olympics like he (Pozzo) did, but I’d settle for the European Championship,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini said with a smile.
It was nearly two years ago that Italy lost a playoff to Sweden and failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup - leaving the four-time champion out of soccer’s biggest tournament for the first time in 54 years.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing under Mancini, who was tasked with restoring the mentality and confidence in a team that had lost its way under his predecessor Gian Piero Ventura.
The enormity of the job was illustrated by the fact Mancini managed just one win in his first eight matches in charge. That came against Saudi Arabia, which was also the only team against which Italy managed to score more than one goal.
However, little by little Mancini has instilled an attacking mentality and youthful energy into the group.
Italy has won all eight of its qualifying matches in Group J, scoring 25 goals and conceding just three in the process. It also beat the United States in a friendly last year.
Nearly half those goals have come in the two matches against Liechtenstein and Andrea Belotti scored twice again on Tuesday, just as he did in the 6-0 victory earlier in the campaign.
“This side is lucky for me,” Belotti said. “Two goals like last time. I’m very happy, for our performance above all. We did what the coach asked of us.
“You can see that there’s a more confident Italy side with desire to do what the coach wants, the group is following his ideas. We’re showing some good stuff on the pitch after what happened two years ago.”
Belotti will be competing with Ciro Immobile for a starting spot at Euro 2020 but he claims there is no rivalry with his former Torino teammate.
“Ciro is a great friend even off the pitch,” said Belotti, who ran up and hugged Immobile (an unused substitute) after scoring. “We are also roommates.”
As well as the five goals and matching the record, there were other positives to take from the game.
There were debuts for two more players as Napoli defender Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Brescia midfielder Sandro Tonali became the 19th and 20th players to make their international debut under Mancini.
While Tonali was given only 16 minutes, Di Lorenzo played the full match and also set up Belotti’s second in an impressive performance from the 26-year-old.
“I’m happy for the whole team, it was important to keep this run of wins going,” Di Lorenzo said. “We’re a good group and there’s a good atmosphere and it’s easy for the new guys to fit in.
“I owe a lot to (Napoli coach Carlo) Ancelottti, he’s put faith in me since the first game and I’m also here thanks to him. Now, it’s on me to keep doing well for Napoli and the Azzurri.”
Many young players are competing for places. Mancini made 10 changes to the team that beat Greece on Saturday, keeping only Marco Verratti.
The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder was handed the captain’s armband as he was the most experienced player in the team - with just 35 caps.
“If they’re here, it’s because we believe in these players,” Mancini said. “In June, however, some good players will have to stay at home.
“They’ll get other chances, we’ll look to improve as a team and then we’ll see. It makes me happy that the guys have great relationships with one another.”
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