Italy second string prove future is bright for Azzurri ahead of 2022 World Cup

Max Cooper
The future is bright for Italy
The future is bright for Italy / Claudio Villa/GettyImages

In case any of us were unsure whether Italy are deserving of their title as reigning European champions, Sunday's 2-1 victory over Belgium was evidence enough that this group is at the top of its sport - and is going nowhere.

Goals from Nicolo Barella and Domenico Berardi were enough for the Azzurri to seal third place in the UEFA Nations League, bouncing back from the disappoint of a semi-final defeat to Spain on home territory.

Roberto Mancini's boys hadn't lost a game in 37 attempts - a world record at international level - until they came unstuck against the Furia Roja, who were on the hunt for revenge. Italy couldn't compete with Spain's early intensity, and the game quickly slipped out of their grasp when Leonardo Bonucci was sent off in the first half.

A late Lorenzo Pellegrini tap-in had provided hope, but that was all it proved to be. So, for Mancini, Sunday's meeting was all about character.

How would his players respond to a loss, and would they hit the levels they managed only months before in the summer tournament? Well, even with a smattering of rotation throughout the side, Italy still looked like a Roberto Mancini side - an impressive feat considering the brief time they had to grow in unison.

Gianluigi Donnarumma became the youngest player to wear the captain's armband since Gianni Rivera in 1965, while Francesco Acerbi, Alessandro Bastoni, Manuel Locatelli, Lorenzo Pellegrini and Giacomo Raspadori stepped in to add some fresh faces to the side.

The ageing Giorgio Chiellini was awarded a well deserved rest, while stalwarts Jorginho and Marco Verratti watched on from the sidelines. The newcomers were up against a strong Belgium side, although the Red Devils were rather blunt in attack without superstar duo Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.

Still, it was a hotly contested battle which both sides wanted to win - despite Thibaut Courtois' comments about it being a pointless game in the buildup to the third-place playoff.

Mancini put his faith in the semi-second string, and they did not disappoint. Locatelli showed at Euro 2020 that he can easily be part of this starting lineup, and he demonstrated those skills once again at the base of the midfield at San Siro.

Locatelli's instant impact at Juventus means no one in Italy is surprised by how quickly he's adapted to international football, and given the constant injury issues which Verratti has suffered throughout his career, the 23-year-old may be the natural heir to his throne.

Manuel Locatelli
Locatelli looked at home / Claudio Villa/GettyImages

Pellegrini caught the eye with some lovely touches and a devilish nutmeg as he made up for lost time, having missed the summer success through injury. The midfield was so balanced with the duo in the engine room - not to mention Nicolo Barella, who ended up breaking the deadlock with an accurate volley from the edge of the box.

In defence, Bastoni proved why he's one of the most unfortunate players in football right now. He's coming off the back of a title-winning season with Inter, in which he held his own as part of the best defence in Serie A.

Despite this, he's been forced to play second fiddle to the timeless Bonucci-Chiellini combo, which made spectators fall in love with the art of defending at Euro 2020. Bastoni settled into the backline comfortably on Sunday, partnering the more experienced Acerbi as if they'd played together for years.

In attack, Raspadori was limited to few sights of goal - something which seems to haunt anyone who plays as a centre forward in this Italy team. That could be because of the focus which falls on the wingers, who are awarded more opportunities to find the net.

And when Federico Chiesa is one of those wingers, it's hard to argue with him being handed the keys to the final third. The Juve star only real broke into the Italy team at Euro 2020, but their style now seems to depend on his relentless running and direct approach.

Only 23 years of age, it's tough to see him being shifted from the Azzurri forward line for years to come. In the end, Italy are stacked in so many departments, and there's no doubt this group of players will only improve over the next 12 months, as we all begin gearing up for the 2022 World Cup.

Italy will be Europe's favourites to lift the trophy, and perhaps the overall favourites. Rightly so, too.