Italy will face either England or Denmark at Wembley on Sunday night in the Euro 2020 final – it has been a little over three years since they failed to qualify for the World Cup
Roberto Mancini has been a man on a mission since taking over as Italy boss.
This is the manager who quit after less than a year in charge at Zenit St Petersburg because he felt it was the ultimate honour and would be the highlight of his career.
Mancini, 56, inherited an Italian team at their lowest point in May 2018, they had failed to reach a World Cup finals for the first time since 1958 and had a squad which was a pale shadow compared to their glory days.
But, incredibly, Mancini has transformed Italy into a team on a 33 game unbeaten run, they are drilled, defiant and determined to win the Euros after clinching their place in Sunday’s final.
Former Manchester City boss Mancini named a large squad for his first games in charge to take a look at every player, has now created a tight knit unit who do not know the meaning of the word defeat.
It is not a classic Italian squad but it is wrong to underestimate them as they have veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini whose partnership with Leonardo Bonucci is rock solid and the foundation of their success.
Keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is one of the best in the world, Marco Veratti is world class, Mancini trusts Chelsea ’s Jorginho to run his midfield and Federico Chiesa is sensational.
But it is also a team built on togetherness and Mancini’s philosophy of work rate, pressing and passion which is epitomised every time they sing the national anthem.
They started the tournament as 11/1 shots with some bookies, rank outsiders who few talked about as potential winners but now the Azzuri are making an incredible comeback as a European force.
Mancini said: “Almost nobody believed we could do it. And yet we are into the final. So we are pleased for Italians everywhere who have been following us for the last few weeks.
“I must say we are very happy about all of this and I thank the players because they believed right from Day One that we could produce something incredible.
“We have not yet done everything we need to – there is still one step to go. But we have not achieved anything yet, so we still have to wait.
“Everyone wants to do this – occasionally it comes off, sometimes less so. But the players did want to do something different.
“They wanted to play a brand of football that people enjoy and thus far they have managed to do exactly that. So a difficult task became ultimately all the more enjoyable and we are very happy to have made it to the final.”
Italy have entertained during the tournament but they have also defended brilliantly, set a new record for more than 19 hours without conceding a goal before finally cracking against Austria.
But even Mancini admitted that the dramatic semi final against Spain when they went through on penalties was their ultimate test.
“I think when you are involved in such an intense World Cup or European Championship, there always comes a game when you have to win a game and suffer because it cannot all be very smooth as our progress has been thus far going into the final four,” said Mancini.
“We knew it was going to be a very tough match and we knew it was going to be this one. That’s why I think the players and everyone who has worked with us deserves a lot of credit because it wasn’t easy by any means.”
Former Italy star Mancini was high maintenance when he was manager at Manchester City, a demanding and difficult figure who had many rows before leading the club to their first Premier League title and putting them on the path to greatness.
Now, in charge of Italy, Mancini looks as if he is in a good place, enjoying a sense of fulfilment and rebuilding the Azzurri feels like his destiny.