Soccer-Pantheon of greats awaits for Mancini, the architect of Italy's resurrection

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FILE PHOTO: Euro 2020 - Semi Final - Italy v Spain
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By Alasdair Mackenzie

ROME (Reuters) - Roberto Mancini has made history as Italy manager before a ball is kicked in Sunday's Euro 2020 final.

Over the last three years, the 56-year-old has overseen a national record 33-game unbeaten run, surpassing Vittorio Pozzo’s double World Cup-winning side of the 1930s and Marcello Lippi’s 2006 world champions along the way.

But Mancini has so far refused to take credit for the achievement. “Pozzo won trophies, which is more important,” he said.

He is not wrong, but Mancini is now one step away from joining Pozzo and Lippi in the illustrious pantheon of Italian coaching greats by leading Italy to their first European Championship since 1968.

It would be a remarkable achievement, considering the state the national team was in when Mancini found them.

He took the job in May 2018 after lifting trophies across the continent at club level with league titles at Inter Milan and Manchester City and domestic cups at City, Lazio, Fiorentina and Galatasaray.

But the national team job posed a daunting task after their humiliating failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

That national disgrace resulted in the departures of coach Gian Piero Ventura and federation head Carlo Tavecchio, not to mention public fury and intense debate about the worrying state of a once-great football nation.

RUIN TO REVIVAL

Slowly but surely, Mancini put the shattered pieces back together and built a vibrant new Italian side.

“Ideas like his have never been seen before with the national team,” former Napoli coach Gennaro Gattuso said recently.

Those ideas were to implement a positive, proactive identity that leaned on the technical proficiency of Italy's players, and to bring through the younger generation.

Results were not immediate; in their first six games, Mancini’s Italy won once – a friendly against Saudi Arabia.

But the concepts he put in place were almost immediately apparent, and the 1-0 UEFA Nations League defeat his side suffered in Sept. 2018 proved to be their last.

There were still some doubts about how well Mancini’s side might fare at a major tournament with a relatively inexperienced squad and only seven survivors from Euro 2016.

But throughout the tournament, Italy have demonstrated an ability to continue playing their own way regardless of injuries or personnel changes.

SMILES ALL ROUND

Along the way, Mancini has sought to take the pressure off his players to get the best out of them.

“I think after everything we have gone through, now is the time to try and put a smile back on faces,” Mancini said before the opening game against Turkey.

“That will be our aim over the next month, we want people to enjoy themselves and have fun.”

Mission complete. No matter what happens in Wembley on Sunday, Italy has fallen in love with Mancini’s team, who have shown an ability to dazzle and entertain one moment, but grit their teeth and battle the next.

In a team with no established star, Mancini has taken on that role. Corriere della Sera called him “Captain Mancini”, while Corriere dello Sport went for “Mister Italia”.

“Mancini is doing extraordinary work, without him this team would not play this way,” said legendary former Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi.

“In a short time he has managed to introduce a modern style of football, I hope that it sets all the Italian coaches down the same path.”

Mancini’s side has won over neutral admirers on their road to the final, smashing tired and dated stereotypes about dull, defensive Italian football along the way.

With nine players aged 24 or under in the squad and several of them starting regularly, there is also a belief that this is the start of something special and not a flash in the pan success.

Mancini has revived the national team, put smiles back on faces, and changed perceptions of Italian football.

His work is already remarkable, but a trophy would ensure that his legacy lasts forever.

(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Toby Davis)

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