UEFA Euro 2020

Roberto Mancini must pick Marco Verratti - despite Manuel Locatelli fairytale

Max Cooper
Verratti must start for Italy
Verratti must start for Italy / Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Italy have come a long way since that fateful night in Milan back in November 2017.

Gli Azzurri welcomed Sweden to San Siro, needing to overturn a one-goal deficit to secure qualification for World Cup 2018. 90 minutes later, a country was in mourning.

Coach Gian Piero Ventura's side limped to a 0-0 draw, Daniele De Rossi refused to be substituted on, believing a more attacking player should be introduced, and the entire national team setup was in pure chaos.

Gabriele Oriali, Roberto Mancini, Alberico Evani
What you gonna do when they come for you? / Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Well, the year is now 2021, and Italy's ailments have been reduced from seemingly incurable damage to a minor headache. Roberto Mancini is at the helm, and he has overseen the arrival of the Azzurri's next generation.

The players are peaking at just the right time and taking Euro 2020 by storm - so much so that there are now whispers that Italy are in fact the team to stick your money on this summer. It's clear to see why, too.

Three games, three wins, 0 goals conceded and the second-most scored in the competition thus far. Easy peasy. Several players have stepped up to the plate in the past two weeks, becoming household names across Europe.

Manuel Locatelli
Locatelli has taken Euro 2020 by storm / Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Domenico Berardi is finally showing his true potential, Leonardo Spinazzola's displays are fuelling links with a move to Real Madrid, and Lorenzo Insigne is the country's real attacking kingpin.

But one man has been propelled into the stratosphere, from Sassuolo prospect to being courted by all of Europe's giants, Manuel Locatelli.

The 23-year-old started both of the opening two matches, which Italy won 3-0, and played a blinder in the second game against Switzerland.

He bagged a brace, first timing a run into the box to perfection and slotting home, and then capping off a Star of the Match performance with a cracker from outside the area. It was about as complete a midfield display as you could imagine.

And then Marco Verratti returned from injury, and produced an even more well-rounded performance on his long-awaited comeback.

The Paris Saint-Germain star took the Italy midfield to new levels in the 1-0 win over Wales, whizzing around the pitch to break up attacks, using his nimble feet to avoid detection, and kickstarting his team in moving up the pitch.

The stereotypical perceptions of Verratti suggest that he's a terrier who enjoys tackling too much, sits in front of a defence and acts as a bit of a more mobile regen of Gennaro Gattuso. But he is so much more than that.

The 28-year-old also plays a big role in Italy's success in the final third, pinging passes around as they pin their opponents inside their own penalty area. His underrated vision saw him create six chances against Wales, providing the only goal of the game with a well-flighted set-piece.

And the fact that he wore the armband in the second half of the match only further demonstrates just how important he is to his country. His return saw Locatelli forced to watch on from the bench, and the Sassuolo star must have felt his chances of starting in the round of 16 slipping away with each passing minute.

In truth, Verratti's return to fitness has presented Mancini with his first minor headache of the tournament. Locatelli is the new kid on the block, the boy wonder, and the man who must feel it's his destiny to cement his place in football folklore and power Italy to European glory.

Then there is the pocket-sized elephant in the corner of the room. On his day, and at full fitness, Verratti is the best midfielder Italy has at its disposal, and one of the very, very best in the world.

So, no matter how well Locatelli has played - unfair as it seems - Verratti has to start.

Is there space elsewhere in the midfield for this tournament's breakout star? Well, not really.

Premier League viewers may laugh and ridicule Jorginho for his sideways passing and lack of assists, but he is fundamental to Italy's play. When he pulls on the blue of Italy, he is a different and more valued player to the one who dons the Chelsea blue.

Jorginho's ability to protect the Azzurri backline means that replacing him in the latter stages of a tournament would be too big a risk, and the same goes for Nicolo Barella. The diminutive box-to-box midfielder drives his team forward, snaps into tackles and wins free-kicks of his own to cleverly manage the game.

As his title-winning displays proved for Inter, he is growing into a wonderful b*****d of a player.

For the time being, then, there is no space for Locatelli. It seems crazy given his impact in the first two games of the campaign, but it's also an indication of just how strong this Italy side is. He is the fairytale pick, but Mancini knows there's more to management than reading the narrative.

Verratti is back, and no matter how little football he's played in recent weeks, he's earned the right to walk straight into the heart of that Italy team and boss the rest of Europe. Locatelli's time will come, but a new narrative is about to unfold: it's Verratti's turn to demonstrate what he can do at a major tournament.