Following a year-long delay, the much-anticipated Euro 2020 finals get underway on Friday, as form side Italy host fast-improving Turkey at the iconic Stadio Olimpico.
While the Azzurri seek to make the most of home advantage in Rome, their Turkish counterparts are aiming to at least avoid defeat in their opening match of the competition at the fifth time of asking.
Four-times world champions Italy will marry vast experience with youthful exuberance this summer, as they attempt to end a half-century of European Championship hurt with one of their most fancied squads in years.
Due to their consistently excellent form during last season, the Azzurri – yet to be crowned continental champions since their last success back in 1968 – come into Group A not only as favourites to progress as section winners, but also as one of the favourites to lift the Henri Delaunay trophy next month.
Allied to their superb record under coach Roberto Mancini – who has transformed a side lacking in direction and belief into a slick, well-oiled winning machine since his appointment in 2018 – La Nazionale will play each of their group stage games in the Italian capital; starting with a testing opening night encounter with Mediterranean rivals Turkey.
Mancini can prepare for the game in the knowledge that his is currently the highest win rate of any Italy manager in history – having come out on top in more than two-thirds of his matches to date. Furthermore, his new-look squad have rattled in over 70 goals and conceded just 14 during the process and are currently on an eight-game winning streak – including pre-tournament friendlies versus San Marino and the Czech Republic.
Incorporating talented youngsters such as in-demand goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, flying winger Federico Chiesa, plus Scudetto-winning Inter pair Nicolo Barella and Alessandro Bastoni into a well-rounded selection with few obvious flaws, the former Manchester City manager was the recent recipient of a new contract that runs until after the 2026 World Cup.
Under his guidance, Italy have eased to qualification for both the Euros and the semi-finals of the Nations League, while posting three wins from as many fixtures so far on the road to Qatar 2022 – meanwhile extending their unbeaten home record in World Cup qualifiers to a staggering 56 games.
In all, the four-time world champions have gone undefeated during their last 27 outings, so will certainly carry momentum into their opening night on the grand Roman stage, where the world will watch their efforts to outwit a Turkey team whose excellent recent defensive record almost matches their own.
Though expectation outside the transcontinental nation remains muted, Turkey coach Senol Gunes – who returned to lead his country in 2019, having overseen their third-place finish in the 2002 World Cup – will lead a confident and disciplined side into the Olimpico colosseum on Friday evening.
Taking the father figure role watching over the youngest squad at the Euros – with an average age of just under 25 years – Gunes has helped to instill some significant substance in defence, without sacrificing the flair traditionally associated with some of the best Turkish sides.
As several talented defenders came through the ranks to bolster their back line, the Crescent-Stars cruised through to the Euros having taken four points from World Cup-winners France. With new names including Serie A-based duo Merih Demiral and Kaan Ayhan being drafted in, they conceded just three times during qualifying and kept eight clean sheets throughout the 10-game process.
In all, Turkey have proven exceptionally hard to get the better of in recent times, losing on only three occasions in their 26 matches since Gunes stepped back into one of the hottest of hotseats.
Not only were competition favourites France unable to beat them home or away, but they were more recently 4-2 winners against the Netherlands in Qatar 2022 qualifying, as veteran striker Burak Yilmaz – a Ligue 1 champion with Lille – bagged a hat-trick and elusive playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu also found the target.
Now approaching a championship which they have all too often failed to reach in the past, the Crescent-Stars will look to match their best previous finishes, should the draw work out kindly – as they are strong contenders to progress from a group also containing Wales and Switzerland.
Quarter-finalists in 2000 and then surprise contestants in the final four of the 2008 edition, Turkey have, this month, taken advantage of lightweight post-season opposition to build a six-game unbeaten run, before they tackle the first examination of their credentials to go deep into this year’s main event.
Turkey form (all competitions):
Italy form (all competitions):