The Copa America is not the only international competition to kick off this weekend, with the U21 Euros starting on Sunday as Poland take on Belgium. However, the game neutrals are looking forward to watching comes later that night as tournament co-hosts Italy face Spain. Two of the competition favourites clash at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara as they aim to improve their chances of progression and, in the process, knock a rival out in the early stages.
The Azzurrini will see this summer as a great chance of lifting their sixth U21 Euros, with Luigi Di Biagio’s side already the most successful side in the competition’s history. And there is a raft of talent at the 48-year-old’s disposal and, if used properly, will undoubtedly go all the way this year.
Spain won’t be mere pushovers this weekend, yet Di Biagio will demand his team secure an early three points in front of their own fans to improve their chances of success. That said, the former midfielder needs to shake his side out of this current funk in order to hit the ground running in Bologna. The U21 side come into the meeting with Spain on a four-match winless run, losing to England and Germany and drawing with Austria and Croatia and their sole win in their last six have come at Tunisia’s expense.
That said, if Italy can find their rhythm for their tournament bow, then they will be a force to be reckoned with. Goalkeeping superstar in the making Gianluigi Donnarumma was part of the setup two years ago, but having since established himself as first choice for the senior side, he has been replaced by Sampdoria’s Emil Audero as number one in Di Biagio’s side, though Alex Meret provides stiff competition between the sticks having impressed in the second half of the season for Napoli.
In defence, Gianluca Mancini is the notable inclusion having excelled for Atalanta last season and he is one of eight players in the 23-man squad to have turned out for the senior side in the past, so there is ample experience in the crop of players Di Biagio has selected. Roma duo Nicolo Zaniolo and Lorenzo Pellegrini both impressed in Serie A last season, with the former linked with a move to Tottenham, while Sandro Tonali has his suitors from England after the teenager helped Bresica to a top-flight return.
It’s in the final third, though, where Italy catch the eye with Di Biagio not short of goalscoring talent. Moise Kean has just three caps to his name, but has bagged twice for the Azzurrini, while Patrick Cutrone and Federico Chiesa are two effective attacking outlets this summer. However, the one to watch is Riccardo Orsolini, who shone for Bologna last season.
The young winger, on loan from Juventus, was vital as the Rossoblu beat the drop by six points. The 22-year-old scored eight and assisted five in Italy’s top tier and it was a key period of the campaign that Orsolini exploded into life. Indeed, from the beginning of March onwards, Orsolini scored six and assisted three goals while his two WhoScored man of the match awards came in the final months of the campaign.
1.4 successful dribbles and 0.9 key passes per 90 were both respectable returns for a Bologna side that scored just 48 league goals last season and that they had the option to buy is a huge boost for the team given their points per game record rose from 0.7 to 1.6 with the wideman starting. It’s been reported that, in May, Bologna made his move permanent for €15m, with Juventus having first refusal on his signature should they sell.
With his football the sole focus of his attention for the summer, Orsolini can now look towards helping Italy to a sixth U21 European Championship. Bologna can rest easy knowing one of their prized assets is tied down and that, if he does impress this summer, they’ll stand to make a healthy profit on his sale, be it to Juventus or abroad.
The priority, however, is that Italy need to correct their sub-par form in order to harbour any hopes of success on home turf this summer. As one of the early favourites to win the tournament, failure to secure a result against Spain will hinder their chances of success, but if the likes of Orsolini, among others, can transfer their excellent club form to the international stage, then the Azzurrini should hit familiar turf running this weekend.