As is often the case at major football tournaments, the best team didn’t win the trophy. Italy Under-21’s crashed out of the European Under-21 Championships in Sweden despite dominating their semi-final against Germany on Friday night.
The Azzurrini registered a whopping 27 shots, averaging an effort almost every three minutes, saw four attempts cleared off the line, squandered a whole host of opportunities, and were denied time and again by brilliant goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, who is surely the worthy German successor to Oliver Kahn.
Italy shot-stopper Andrea Consigli barely had a save to make all game, while Germany scored with virtually their only serious shot, a speculative 30-yard strike from Andreas Beck, which while powerful and accurate should not have really beaten the Atalanta glovesman.
The elimination will be a bitter pill to swallow for the Italian peninsula. After a truly disastrous Calcio season, there was optimism that Pierluigi Casiraghi’s boys would restore some pride by triumphing in Sweden. Indeed, following the catastrophic showings in the Champions League, UEFA Cup and Confederations Cup, the Azzurrini were the only Italian team this term to reach a semi-final.
Yet, despite this horrible statistic (and the worst Italy senior team for 50 years in South Africa), the future of the Italy national team is extremely bright. We learned from the Euros that Marco Motta and Salvatore Bocchetti will soon be fine full international defenders, and in fact are already ready for the senior squad. Motta should immediately take over from Gianluca Zambrotta at right back. Even Marco Andreolli had an impressive Scandinavian sojourn, although Domenico Criscito could still do with developing physically.
In midfield, Luca Cigarini looks like a possible heir to Andrea Pirlo. The new Napoli signing controlled Friday’s match for the entire 90 minutes, and his creativity, range-of-passing and set-pieces are superb. The suspended Claudio Marchisio will also surely be an Italy regular before too long.
In attack, Sebastian Giovinco was unplayable for the first 45 minutes against Germany, popping up in the hole to find space, instigating attacks. The Atomic Ant is by no means the finished article, and he needs to score more goals and improve his finishing. Given the time and trust, though, the 22-year-old is a star-in-the-making. As is Mario Balotelli, who just needs to fix that repulsive attitude of his.
The players listed above are all likely to develop into excellent senior Italy players in the next few years. At least two or three of them will become world class. The same cannot really be said about the other Under-21 teams in Sweden.
England, despite almost throwing it away in their semi against the hosts, have virtually blitzed their way through to the final. As a team, they have been superbly efficient. But they have only impressed as a team, and looking at their squad it is difficult to find many players who will become senior stars. Theo Walcott and Micah Richards, perhaps. Nedum Onouha, possibly, but only possibly. The talented Jack Rodwell and Kieran Gibbs are still far too inexperienced in order to make any accurate prediction about their futures. Offensively, England have largely been a set-piece team, but it is individuals who must make the step up to the seniors, and the Young Lions do not possess many individuals.
While installing a winning mentality is important from a young age, of all the entrants, Italy will have the most cause for optimism. Germany, with Neuer, Jerome Boateng and Mesut Ozil have three probable international stars, but if all things go according to plan, Italy could have seven or eight.
Despite his three goals, the big disappointment for Italy was Robert Acquafresca. So highly-rated by the Italian press, I really do not share the same enthusiasm for the half-Polish hitman. If proven wrong so be it, but I see Acquafresca as the ‘new Alberto Gilardino’ – a limited striker with minimal movement who relies on those around him to score goals, and risks falling short against top-class opposition. At 21, time is on his side though.
A final word is reserved for coach Casiraghi. Granted, he was unlucky against Germany, but there surely can be no excuse for failing to win this tournament. The group of players he had at his disposal should have been far too strong for every opponent. Casiraghi’s decision to leave Acquafresca on for so long against Germany penalised Italy, and tactically the USA '94 striker was very suspect. The Claudio Ranieri-syndrome of being unable to read the direction of the game, and waiting to make substitutions springs to mind.
Since taking over in 2006, Casiraghi’s U-21 record reads as follows: a first round exit at Euro 2007, a quarter final elimination at the 2008 Olympics to Belgium, and a semi-final defeat at Euro 2009. When you consider the outstanding pool of talent, that record is not good enough, and it is surely time for the Italian Federation to consider Gigi's future. In his defence, Casiraghi has helped develop some prodigious youngsters for the Azzurri, and if you are Marcello Lippi you cannot ask for more.
As for the future of Italy, the likes of Motta, Bocchetti, Cigarini, Marchisio, Giovinco and Balotelli (not forgetting the already graduated Davide Santon and Giuseppe Rossi, as well as Napoli's Fabiano Santacroce) ensure that there are some good times ahead for La Nazionale. The 2010 World Cup may arrive too soon, but come Euro 2012 or Brazil 2014, the real Azzurri will certainly be back.
What are your views on Italy’s Under-21 exit? Is the future bright for the Italy senior team? Which players will become stars of the future? Goal.com wants to know what YOU think…
Carlo Garganese, Goal.com