After the euphoria of Baku, Wales last night flew into Rome, a city basking in its own football ecstasy.
The Azzurri are flying. Roberto Mancini has restored the nation’s love of the national side and Gazzetta dello Sport is not the only title purring about the way he has enlisted the nation’s football greats, Daniele de Rossi, Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Oriali to help him to do so.
‘They know how to make the most of technical skills and give space to people of superior quality,’ the paper enthused yesterday, beneath a picture of the quartet in those slate grey blazers which have been the sartorial highlight of the group stages.
Wales will have no fear against Italy despite the Azzurri producing some inspired form of late
But though there are already feverish calculations in Rome about how Italy might best ease a path to the quarter-finals, there is an element of anxiety about Gareth Bale bursting the bubble. ‘On Sunday, we watch out for Bale,’ said Federico Chiesa, who may take Lorenzo Insigne’s place in the side if Mancini makes four or five changes, with the team’s qualification already assured.
Italy’s recent record under Mancini is imperious: 10 straight wins, 965 minutes without conceding and 31 goals scored. But this team want to send a message to those who feel they have not been fully tested during that run.
‘They have a lack of intensity, power and pace to be even more dangerous going forward,’ Patrick Vieira said this week.
‘It’s a bit too early to take Italy into consideration and think they can go until the end.’
Roberto Mancini’s men look like one of the favourites for Euro 2020 after two victories
However, there is an element of anxiety about Gareth Bale (above) bursting the bubble
This wasn’t football politics talking. It was Mancini who brought Vieira to City in 2010.
Mancini is talking Italy down for as long as he still can. ‘At this European Championship, there are teams like France, Portugal, Belgium, they are world champions, European champions or world No 1,’ he declared this week. ‘They have developed over the years and have a lot ahead of us. That’s quite normal.’
But he wants to be viewed in exalted company, having found a balance that has taken the side to a level not known for years.
There is an abundance of attacking options. Ciro Immobile had never scored in a tournament for Italy before finding the net in the team’s opening two games. Manuel Locatelli only started against Switzerland because Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti was injured, and scored twice.
Italy’s recent record under Roberto Mancini (right) is imperious: 10 straight wins, 965 minutes without conceding and 31 goals scored
However, Patrick Vieira said that Italy lacked ‘intensity, power and pace’ in their last game
But above all, there has been Jorginho, a player reborn since Thomas Tuchel arrived at Chelsea. He is the one who sets the tempo for Italy and engineers the gear shifts. Mancini has found a place for him that few others have managed to do.
All told, it’s a huge challenge for Wales — not least for the defence. They will look to do what they did in Baku on Wednesday — get Bale and Aaron Ramsey interlinking and defend in numbers.
If there is a chink of light, then it resides in the pace of Daniel James, whose threat in the 2-0 win over Turkey was overlooked as Bale and Ramsey ran riot. Can James and Ramsey, fed by Bale’s vision, get a run on 34-year-old Leonardo Bonucci and — if he is fit — 36-year-old Giorgio Chiellini? Switzerland need a five-goal swing in their favour to displace Wales in second. Wales only need to avoid a heavy defeat.
That would mean a favourable last-16 clash in Amsterdam next weekend with the runners-up from Group B — likely to be one of Finland, Russia or Denmark. Russia’s game with Denmark seems key and there are no prizes for guessing who Wales would prefer. They hammered Russia 3-0 in the group stage in 2016. Win the last-16 game and they could be back in Baku, perhaps facing Holland.
If they inflict Italy’s first defeat in 30 matches, Wales will top the group and would face the runners up in Group C – almost certainly Ukraine or Austria
There is a Wales-esque #togetherstronger vibe emanating from the Italy camp. ‘There are not just 11 players, but 26,’ said Chiesa. ‘We are here as one to go all the way and reach this dream.’
But the win over Turkey has reinvigorated Wales, too. There was a scare for the 300 or so travelling fans yesterday when the Italian government was reported to be imposing a five-day hotel quarantine for British visitors from Friday. But the cloud passed. Italy will instead introduce this stipulation from Monday, to account for the match.
Win on Sunday and Welsh fans can move in greater numbers, with a last-16 match against Austria or Ukraine at Wembley that would allow thousands of fans to travel across the Severn Bridge.
And James said they had not discounted it. ‘We’re underdogs. We’ve got nothing to lose,’ he said. ‘We don’t fear anyone. We believe we can go and win it.’