In May 1992, a goalless European Cup last at Wembley was in the final minutes of extra time when Sampdoria’s replacement, Giovanni Invernizzi, was penalized for a foul on Barcelona’s Eusebio Sacristan – perhaps a little severely.
Samps No10, enraged at the referee, stood nearby, tossed the ball aside, and gesticulated, but the free-kick remained.
Jose Mari Bakero stopped the ball dead and Ronald Koeman smashed it into the bottom corner of the net.
Barcelona won the European Cup for the first time, while Sampdoria were defeated.
Roberto Mancini was their No10, the team captain who would have won the title if fortune had been on his side’s side.
In the remaining years of his career, he continued to succeed, and as a manager, he has done so as well, with league titles and minor cup victories abundant on his resume.
Yet there’s something special and unique about winning the most important cups on the day of the most anticipated finals.
Winning the FA Cup final – or the Coppa Italia, or the Turkish Cup – doesn’t have the same charm as the major European finals, no matter how hard some attempt to recapture the old spirit of yesteryear.
Notwithstanding his subsequent achievements, only a second Cup Winners Cup in 1999, which he won with Lazio at Villa Park, came close to filling the void created by Mancini’s failure to reach the 1992 Wembley final.
Of fact, even that was a subsidiary Uefa competition.
In just 29 years, though, Mancini has come full circle, leading a side to a significant triumph in a European final…at Wembley Stadium.
Even more impressive, his trusted friend in the Italy set-up, who works as a delegation executive, is none other than Gianluca Vialli, Mancini’s striking partner from the Barcelona defeat.
Attilio Lombardo was also a member of that Sampdoria squad and now works for Mancini.
When Mancini took charge in 2018, Italy was in shambles.
It was extensively publicized and discussed how they had narrowly missed out on qualifying for the World Cup after losing a play-off to Sweden, but it was more than that.
They only won two of their 12 matches in all competitions from November 2017 and November 2018.
The squad was less than the sum of its parts, with the team’s identity and style in flux.
Mancini’s journey has been one of remarkable team-building, preparation, and advancement from then on, through the Nations League, a qualification campaign, and now the success at Euro 2020.
Isn’t it true that football fans adore full-circle stories?
So here’s another: Italy’s final match before Mancini took command was a 1-1 draw at Wembley versus England.
The most recent match Italy has played with Mancini at the helm was…well, it’s a little early to go over everything again, but many of the elements look to be the same – save for the most essential one.
Five of the Italian starting in that March 2018 draw made the Euro 2020 final line-up.
If that sounds like a complete overhaul, keep in mind that it was a friendly and only four England players started both games.
The XI at the time included Jack Butland, James Tarkowski, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
(Getty Images) Despite this, there’s no denying that changes occurred rapidly and frequently.
Mancini experimented with previous internationals like Mario Balotelli, gave new faces and potential cornerstones like Alessio Romagnoli chances, tinkered with systems, and, above all, changed his midfield to find the perfect balance of quality and trust in the center of the park.
Wing-backs came and went throughout the season.
Italy faced the Netherlands in the post-Covid restart of 2020 after a few big, heavy wins against minnows in qualification.
Mancini had already chosen the team that would compete in Euro 2020 before the tournament was postponed.
The starting lineup against the Netherlands was as follows: Gigi Donnarumma in goal, Danilo DAmbrosio, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Leonardo Spinazzola in the back four.
Jorginho starts in midfield alongside Manuel Locatelli and Nicolo Barella.
Ciro Immobile leads the attack, accompanied by Lorenzo Insigne and Nicolo Zaniolo.
The latter, a Roma star with game-changing potential, would have been in the team – possibly the starting lineup – if it hadn’t been for back-to-back cruciate knee ligament injuries.
The only other difference between this XI and the one that thrilled the continent on the tournament’s opening night with a blitzing of Turkey came at right-back.
Of course, others have made significant contributions – Marco Verratti is a non-negotiable starter when fit – but Mancini experimented with, and occasionally erred in, removing any harmful characteristics such as ego, inconsistency, and inability to play in a team setting.
The Henri Delaunay Trophy is the outcome of a 34-match unbeaten streak.
(Getty Images)Mancini’s willingness to include players from less-fashionable teams has been acknowledged by some as a key reason in their success.
If the big five of Juventus, Inter, Milan, Roma, and Napoli are assumed to be the obvious go-to clubs, 14 of the 26 clubs originated from outside Italy.
When you add in large non-Italian teams, you get a group of ten.
That isn’t definitive on its own: the same yardsticks indicate eight in the Euro 2016 squad and six in the Euro 2012 squad; nine in the successful World Cup 2006 group but ten in 2010, when they didn’t go past the group stage.
In the end, it was Mancini and the Azzurri’s combination of characteristics and quality that made the difference, not the numbers from each team.
Familiarity helps, but so does competition for spots and a squad working together, which is the greatest achievement an international head coach can aspire for.
More than anything else, Mancini has developed a club-like degree of buy-in, tactical familiarity, organization, and even a hierarchy of players to draw upon throughout the group.
It took nearly three decades, but Mancini’s masterful dugout work has finally put to rest the ghosts of not only Italy’s worst hour in modern football history, but also his own heartbreak at Wembley.