The Azzurri in 2016: A look back on the year that was
As we continue to reflect on the year that was 2016, our attention now turns to the Azzurri, and we take a look at what the year had in store for the national side, as well as what could be on the horizon in 2017.
It’s just been one of those years. 2016 has brought up so many surprises that nobody could have seen coming 12 months ago, from surprising exits and strange choices to new leaders and unlikely results.
And that’s just on the football pitch.
Yes, Euro 2016 this summer provided the biggest shock of them all, with Iceland reaching the quarter-final stage, beating England on the way there, Wales making the semi-finals, and Portugal eventually prevailing after beating France on home turf. Italy showed positive signs after reaching the quarter-finals themselves, with a 2-0 win over Spain, but a loss on penalties to Germany cut short what could have been a promising end to the tournament.
It had already been announced that Antonio Conte would step down as coach after the competition, and Giampiero Ventura was soon brought in as his replacement, but this only took place in the seventh month of the year. Plenty happened before then.
Despite finishing top of their Euro 2016 qualifying group, the Azzurri were once again not seeded for an international tournament. Making matters worse, prior to their travels to France, Conte’s squad selection did raise some concern.
The absence of Andrea Pirlo, although somewhat expected, was a blow to a team for which he had provided the backbone for over 10 years, while more controversy came when Sebastian Giovinco was left out. His campaign in Major League Soccer was one of the best performances in the league’s history, not only by an Italian, or by a European, but in general. Furthermore, both Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti were out injured.
Italy had completed a huge 50-match unbeaten streak in European qualifiers, so things looked positive despite being drawn in the same group as Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden, the Republic of Ireland, and many people’s pre-tournament favourites, Belgium.
Despite all the hype surrounding the Red Devils, Italy claimed an easy 2-0 win over them in their opening match and proceeded to qualify for the knockout stages with a game to spare, after Eder scored a winner against Sweden.
They topped their group in an international competition for the first time since the 2006 World Cup and, after their win against Spain, could not really be blamed for having high hopes. Unfortunately, Germany were just too good to defeat in a penalty shootout.
Things could have gone a lot differently had Simone Zaza converted his penalty. The now West Ham United forward came on in the last seconds of extra-time without having kicked a ball throughout, with the sole purpose of taking a spot-kick. But, he stepped up, eventually, and fired the ball over the bar. Still, he provided the most memorable moment of an agonisingly poor shootout.
The Azzurri have had a positive year in other areas. Since Ventura took over, they have dropped just two points in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and have some excellent young talent coming through the ranks who, if utilised properly, could create a tournament-winning group of players in the future.
Starting with the headline act, 17-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma can take care of the Italian goal with no qualms for the next 10-15 years. Buffon may remain between the sticks until after the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but should he slip up before then, Donnarumma will be ready and raring to go.
Even after that competition, which at the moment seems a long time way, Donnarumma will still only be in his teens. He has incredible talent for such a young player, and he is certainly a positive sign for Italy’s future.
As we move up the pitch, 22-year-old Federico Bernardeschi has had a strong season so far for Fiorentina, scoring 7 goals in 17 Serie A games, while same-aged Domenico Berardi has continued growing at Sassuolo.
Also among the youngsters, a certain Andrea Belotti’s record this year speaks for itself, and Italy could have their No.9 set for the coming years.
Moving away from youngsters, dare we mention Mario Balotelli? The 26-year-old is ever so slightly running out of time to play with and grow in from a football perspective, but since moving to the French Ligue 1 and joining Nice, he has been on amazing form.
He scored four goals in his first two French league games, becoming the first player to do so in 25 years, and has been playing so well since that Nice are currently two points clear at the top of the Ligue 1 table, and a whole five points in front of third-placed Paris Saint-Germain.
As always, as long as his temperament can be handled properly, then Balotelli could easily make a startling comeback to the national side and lead them once more.
Next year sees the Azzurri have no competition commitments aside from World Cup qualifiers. They face the likes of Spain and the Netherlands across the 12 months but have proven this year that they are capable of beating them.
Italy finish 2016 in 16th place in the latest FIFA World Rankings. With a strong Euro 2016 campaign under their belts and a whole host of young and slightly older players to bring through, 2017 looks to be a promising year.