Date: 7th September 2018 at 9:30am
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Roberto Mancini is tasked with picking the strongest possible XI for the Italian national team’s clash against Poland on Friday night, and he’ll undoubtedly be going into the match with several uncertainties.

In an attempt to aid Mancini’s efforts, we’ve picked the best-possible line-up for him to use in Italy’s UEFA Nations League opener. It appears as though Mancini will be opting for a 4-3-3 formation, which will suit the players that he has at his disposal.

Most took for granted that the minute Gianluigi Buffon stepped out of the national team picture, Gianluigi Donnarumma would take over as the first-choice goalkeeper and remain in that role for years to come. The situation isn’t actually as linear as it may have appeared, as both Alex Meret and Mattia Perin will be in serious contention for that starting position in the near future.

Presently, however, there is little doubt as to who the most in-form Italian goalkeeper is: Salvatore Sirigu. The Torino goalkeeper has been brilliant so far this campaign, instilling a sense of security in the Torino faithful that Milan fans just haven’t been able to enjoy with Donnarumma.

Gigio has been prone to a few blunders in recent times, most notably in the Coppa Italia final last season, where at least two out of the four goals Milan conceded were caused by some shocking mistakes by the 19-year-old.

The centre-back partnership isn’t up for debate. Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are both pillars of this national team. Their solidity will be crucial as Mancini attempts to get results with an otherwise inexperienced group. Milan’s Alessio Romagnoli is a reliable option should the manager choose to go with a three-man back line in the future.

At full-back, Domenico Criscito has had a positive return to Serie A with Genoa, and is likely to start on the left over Emerson Palmieri, who has yet to play a single minute of competitive football for Chelsea this season, and Cristiano Biraghi, who is enjoying his first international call-up.

Another national team debutant is SPAL’s Manuel Lazzari, who has been one of the most impressive players in Serie A so far this campaign. The 24-year-old has played as a right wing-back in SPAL’s 3-5-2, showing a willingness to put in the work defensively, as well as to rapidly propel himself forward when it is time to attack. He deserves the starting position at right full-back over Davide Zappacosta, who, like Emerson, has yet to see the field for Chelsea this season.

The centre of the park has an abundance of young talent. Out of the nine players who could potentially play in the three-man midfield – including Federico Bernardeschi – seven are 24 years old or younger, with only Giacomo Bonaventura and Jorginho falling out of that category.

The Brazilian-born midfielder has been a regular under Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea, and Mancini will definitely be hoping he can maintain the form he has shown since his introduction to the Premier League. The former Napoli player is the only midfielder who can be sure of a starting role.

The remaining two positions are up for grabs, with Nicolò Barella, Marco Benassi, and Bonaventura all playing exceptionally well in the first few weeks of the season to make a claim for the spot. Bonaventura is one of the players with the most quality that Mancini has at his disposal, and his lack of action with the Azzurri in the past has been simply incomprehensible.

Although Marco Benassi is currently the leading scorer in the Italian top-flight with three goals – tied with Krzysztof Piatek – who is set to face Italy after receiving the Poland call-up, we cannot ignore the level at which Nicolo Barella has been performing. At the tender age of 21, Barella is the best player at Cagliari by a considerable margin. While he definitely has to cut down on fouling (second highest number of fouls per game in Serie A this season) his influence on both sides of the ball has been remarkable.

Bryan Cristante, Lorenzo Pellegrini, and Roberto Gagliardini have failed to impress so far this season, although they all have the tools to become important players for the Azzurri before Euro 2020.

Italy’s strongest front three isn’t really a dilemma, although Mancini will be hoping his players can deliver with the national team in the same manner as they do in club football. Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne have been sensational in the past two seasons for Lazio and Napoli respectively. However, when it comes to the national team, neither player has been able to have the same impact, resulting in the Azzurri often missing that edge in the attacking third. For the national team to reach its potential both Neapolitan strikers need to be at their best.

The last slot up top can be filled by no other than Bernardeschi, who has been a go-to player for Massimiliano Allegri this season at Juventus. Bernardeschi seems to have started the season with renewed confidence, and the only question for Mancini will be regarding the position in which he should be played, as he’s also seen as an option further back in the midfield.

The 24-year-old has said he wouldn’t have a problem with a switch to a midfield position, saying in a press conference on Wednesday: “It’s a privilege for me, I accept the role. It won’t be a problem to learn new automatisms. It would be a new position for me, but Allegri plays me there during the week [in training]. Patience will be needed. The important thing is having the will to apply yourself.”

Bernardeschi’s ability to play in multiple positions could come in very handy to Mancini, as Fiorentina’s Federico Chiesa is another player he can rely on for the wing, should Bernardeschi be moved to the mezzala role.

It is the first official match for Italy since the fiasco against Sweden on November 13, 2017. Roberto Mancini and his boys will be dying to start with a win against a respectable Polish side. The Azzurri will be well aware of the importance of the match, not only in terms of Euro 2020 qualification and UEFA Nations League success but also to start rebuilding some confidence and pride after Italian football suffered humiliation by missing out on the Russian World Cup.