Italy will travel to Olomouc this Monday, the stage of the Azzurrni’s opening match of their 18th European under-21 Championship campaign, with the squad currently training in the municipality of Appiano Gentile.
Luigi Di Biagio’s men face Sweden at the Andruv Stadion in just a weeks time. The team will then relocate to Uherske Hradiste to play Portugal, the Czech town 806 miles away from Italy’s first success in the competition.
The famous footballing nation have built their ineffable reputation on the brilliance of the senior national side and the domestic league, having won the World Cup on three occasions with Serie A sides winning the European Cup 12 times.
Juventus upset the odds to reach the Champions League final this season, losing to a strong Barcelona side with no fewer than nine Italians in their matchday squad. The Old Laides’ former manager, and current Italy coach, Antonio Conte, stated in a press conference before a clash with Azerbaijan last October:
“I hope that the choices made in the future are in the right direction, it takes courage to start playing young Italians.”
This is a feeling shared by Luigi Di Biagio, the manager of the under-21 team. Being capped 31 times for Italy will remain the highlight of the 44-year-old’s playing career, despite making an impression with Inter Milan and Roma. The coach feels that the development of young Italians is being stifled, he proclaimed:
“Unfortunately, we are penalised by the sheer number of foreign players in our youth academies. Clubs in Serie A lack courage.”
With the European under-21 Championships returning this year, the Italy will turn their attentions to their hottest, youngest prospects once again. Giving those a chance to see the future professionals that will be representing their countries at the upcoming World Cup finals, wherever they might be.
Some outstanding performances by some may give Conte a headache when the Azzurri play Malta and Bulgaria in the European Championship qualifiers during September. Both making their debuts in the 2004 tournament, Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon stand alone as those who remain from the finals in Portugal. However, these two fantastic servants are coming towards an end to their illustrious international careers.
The former has been heavily linked with a move to the MLS this summer, concluding a 20-year stint in Italian football that started with Brescia in 1995. A move away to a less competitive league should spell the end of the 36-year-old’s love story with his national side, with matches against Croatia and Portugal possibly proving to be his final swansong.
His fellow countryman and long serving team-mate, Buffon, is now 37 but is still looking strong. Participating in just his second Champions League final last week, the veteran made some outstanding saves to deny the eventual winners of UEFA’s most prestigious competition, Barcelona, on several occasions. Despite Italian football’s oldest ever professional still playing in goal at the age of 45, those in charge of youth development will be looking to replace Buffon after the 2016 Euros in France.
The ex-Parma ‘keeper has made no fewer than 147 appearances for his beloved country, more than any other. Paris Saint-Germain’s Salvatore Sirigu is next in line for a starting berth, with the shot stopper gaining valuable domestic and European experience with the French giants. However, already aged 28 with just 12 caps to his name, Sirigu will be seen as a quick fix and will be 31 when the next World Cup takes place.
Leali could replace Buffon at club and international level
The most obvious choice to replace Buffon in the long term is Nicola Leali of Juventus. A possible successor to his idol at both club and international level, the 22-year-old is the youngest goalkeeper included in Luigi Di Biagio’s final squad for this summer’s Euros. Representing Italy at every level barring senior, the ‘keeper can also draw parallels with Andrea Pirlo after starting his career at Brescia.
Leali faces stiff competition for the starting spot once Buffon hangs up his gloves, which is expected to be when his Juve contract expires in 2017. Genoa's Mattia Perin, Inter’s Francesco Bardi and Udinese’s Simone Scuffet are all promising players in their position and will certainly rival each other for a place in the national set up.
Despite Leali gaining valuable experience in Serie A with loan club Cesena, the aforementioned trio have all seemingly advanced at a much higher speed than their compatriate. Many questioned the decision to send him on loan to Serie B clubs for two successive seasons, rather than continue his development with a lower ranked first division outfit.
Speaking in an interview in October 2013 he proclaimed that he could "play regularly at Spezia" and he was happy in doing so. The goalkeeper also stated that he needed to do well "on a year by year basis" to continue to grow, and that he aimed to do well in 2013/14 before taking another step up the following year.
He certainly achieved his goal. Leali made 19 more saves than Buffon over the course of the season, despite playing fewer games, but fell 18 short to Perin, who has been ruled out of the Euros through injury, on 93. Eight of these saves came against his parent club, showing off his potential in a 3-0 defeat at the Juventus Stadium. An impressive performance was dampened by an Arturo Vidal penalty, a wonderful long range effort from the Chilean and a deflected Stephan Lichtsteiner cross on a night where the ‘keeper frustrated Giovinco throughout.
Proving shaky at times when defending set pieces or crosses, many feel Leiela could command his area better but this form of leadership may develop with age. The former Lanciano loanee is improving rapidly on this front though, enjoying more successful claims than Perin and Buffon in the 2014/15 season, 110 in his 28 games.
Distribution still remains a problem, however, an attribute Buffon has perfected over the decades. Finding his team-mates just 59% of the time, Leiela lacks in comparison to Buffon, who has a 83% distribution accuracy this season.
In spite of this stunning season, the 20-year-old has made just one appearance at under-21 level for his national team but did travel to Israel for the European Championships two years ago. Luigi Di Biagio started Francesco Bardi in a friendly against Inter Berretti last Sunday, in a 1-0 win in which they started with an experimental 4-3-3 formation.
Competition in form of Francesco Bardi
23-year-old Bardi has been part of the under-21 set up for some time now, amassing 31 appearances for the Azzurrini since making his debut against Sweden in 2011. The Inter Milan man has been on loan away from the Serie A titans for four successive seasons with Livorno, Novara and most recently Chievo. Despite Gialloblu finishing in a lowly 14th place this campaign, Rolando Maran’s men conceded just 41 league goals; this is a total not surpassed by anyone barring the top three of Juventus, Roma and Lazio.
With this impressive figure, it has been near impossible to dislodge first choice Albano Bizzarri from the starting XI. The former Real Madrid goalkeeper has kept 13 clean sheets in 28 Serie A appearances, conceding just 24 and producing 70 saves. A remarkable team normally provides competition in every position but, although Bardi has played 10 games in the league this season, any attempts to challenge Bizzarri has been fruitless.
When getting his chance, the loanee has failed to seize his opportunities and subsequently conceded seven goals less than his Argentinian counterpart despite playing 1,620 less minutes. Although the statistics present a less than impressive campaign for Chievo, Bardi has competed against five of the top seven in his 10 games this season. Considering the expertise these team’s harbour upfront in the form of Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and 13 goal Iago Falque, conceding goals is expected.
Bardi’s only clean sheet in Serie A came against a Rafa Benitez Napoli side struggling to hit form at the beginning of the campaign. The Naples outfit had failed to secure advancement to the Champions League group stages, after losing 4-1 to Athletic Bilbao in the concluding qualifier, before recording their first victory of the season courtesy of a last minute Jonathan de Guzman strike.
Chievo would go on to record their only win from the opening 11 fixtures, with plaudits going to Maxi Lopez but credit was given to their young ‘keeper. Making nine saves, including denying Higuain from the penalty spot, his stunning performance kept out an impressive Napoli attack and secured all three points for his adopted side.
Future at the San Siro
Roberto Mancini’s current first choice goalkeeper has been linked with moves abroad for some time now and, with a solitary year remaining on his contract, Samir Handanovic is likely to leave the San Siro this summer. The Slovenian number one is being courted by a number of top clubs, with lack of Champions League football sighted to be the reason behind his refusal of an extension to his current deal.
With speculation over a move to Manchester United coming to an abrupt end this month, Turkish giants Fenerbahce and Paris Saint-Germain remain the frontrunners for his sought after signature. The latter are looking for an improvement on Italy international Salvatore Sirigu after an inconsistent season, and a swap deal may be on the cards between the two clubs in an attempt to circumvent Financial Fair Play.
If a potential replacement for Handanovic is brought to Milan, Bardi’s frustrating tenure at Inter may come to a disappointing end this summer. The shot stopper is looking to increase his minutes on the pitch to continue his vital development, with an improving Fiorentina potential suitors for this young talent.
Who will start in the Czech Republic?
It is Bardi’s performances for his country that is likely to keep him between the sticks when they open their European Championship campaign against Sweden, rather than form going into the tournament.
31 appearances across five years makes the former Sorgenti Labrone youngster tried and tested at this level. His stunning performances two years ago in Israel saw his nation reach the final of the Euros, collecting three clean sheets against England, Israel and Holland along the way.
The Azzurrini’s campaign would ultimately end in defeat to an impressive Spain side, as a Thiago hat-trick inspired La Roja to a second triumph in succession. These stand out performances made him an ever-present in the 10 game qualification campaign and all friendlies proceeding the final, never missing a game under Di Biagio’s management.
With third choice Marco Sportiello unlikely to warrant a start in this year’s tournament, despite a full season with relegation threatened Atlanta, Bardi remains the favourite ahead of Leali. Although plenty view the latter as a more formidable talent, it is the former’s experiences and performances at international level that will assure he gets the nod over any rivals.