Mancini's Italy emerge from the darkness to begin record-breaking new era
ROME – At first glance, Italy's 5-0 win over a Liechtenstein side ranked 182nd in the world by FIFA wasn't a noteworthy result.
Tuesday's victory in Vaduz, however, marked a historic moment for a team that has undergone a radical transformation in the 17 months since Roberto Mancini took over as manager.
It was the Azzurri's ninth win in a row, a run of form that equalled an Italian record set by the great Vittorio Pozzo's team 80 years earlier.
"Matching Pozzo's record is nice, but I'd rather match his record of winning two World Cups," Mancini said after the game.
That feat may be out of reach for now, but the former Manchester City boss has nevertheless given the Italian public plenty of statistical gems to pore over during the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
Italy's 2-0 win over Greece at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Saturday assured them of qualification to next summer's European Championships with three games to spare.
It was the earliest qualification they have ever achieved, and the outlook of Group J following the win in Liechtenstein made for more happy reading.
Italy top the group with eight wins from eight, 25 goals scored - averaging more than three per game - and just three conceded.
Mancini's side have hurdled every obstacle, coming from behind to win against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia and finding a late winner against surprise package Finland during a 2-1 victory in September.
It was crucial that the manager got to work quickly when he was named as the successor to Gian Piero Ventura in May 2018.
Ventura became public enemy number one in Italy after their humiliating World Cup play-off defeat to Sweden at the end of 2017, a result that confirmed their first absence from the tournament since 1958.
Mancini picked up the national team in a period of profound darkness but, piece by piece, has rebuilt the fragile confidence of the team.
"You can see there's an Italy side with more conviction, more desire to do what the coach says and follow the very clear ideas we considered from the start to be wise," striker Andrea Belotti said after scoring twice in Liechtenstein.
"You can see we're doing some wonderful things on the field, especially compared to the ugliness of two years ago."
Success wasn't immediate, as Italy went five games without a win after the manager's debut friendly victory over Saudi Arabia.
But Mancini gradually found his strongest team and favoured formation, and the results soon followed.
The euphoric mood among 60,000 fans in the Olimpico celebrating qualification to Euro 2020 at the weekend was the clearest signal yet of how far this team has come under their leader.
The idea of it being a new era for the national team wasn't lost on kit makers Puma, who unveiled a green shirt they described as the "renaissance kit" ahead of the Greece game.
It divided opinion, as many fans were bemused by the idea of playing in anything other than the 'Azzurro' blue that gives the team its nickname.
But the symbolism was obvious, as the emergence of the next generation was celebrated alongside Italy's resurgence as a force in international football.
Mancini has given youth a chance, handing Nicolo Barella, 22, Gianluigi Donnarumma, 20, and Federico Chiesa, 21, regular starts, while others including Nicolo Zaniolo, 20, Sandro Tonali, 19, and Moise Kean, 19, have had opportunities.
He's also given the team an identifiable style, using a 4-3-3 featuring two playmakers, in Marco Verratti and Jorginho, who like to dictate the tempo.
Sceptics have pointed to their lack of any serious challenge in qualifying in an effort to keep everyone grounded, but Mancini has successfully completed his first task: making Italy a respected European power once again. (Editing by Alex RichardsonReuters