Italy started their preparations for Euro 2020 with an emphatic 7-0 friendly win over San Marino at the Sardegna Arena on Friday. 

Despite a slow start, Roberto Mancini's side went in at the interval two goals up courtesy of strikes from Federico Bernardeschi – the Juventus man's sixth international goal – and Gian Marco Ferrari.  

Matteo Politano and Matteo Pessina added braces after the break, while Andrea Belotti was also on target as Italy brushed aside their neighbours with the minimum of fuss.

The result marked the Azzurri's seventh consecutive win without conceding a goal. 

Italy struggled in the early stages against their less illustrious opponents, with only Gianluca Mancini and Bernardeschi registering efforts on target inside the opening half hour. 

They went ahead after 31 minutes, however, when Bernardeschi's low strike from 20 yards proved too powerful for San Marino goalkeeper Elia Benedettini. 

Sassuolo defender Ferrari, who scored on his only other appearance for Italy against San Marino in 2017, doubled their advantage three minutes later, volleying home after Benedettini had failed to clear a corner. 

Half-time substitute Politano wasted little time making his mark on the game, sliding in his third international goal in the 49th minute after a mix-up in the San Marino defence. 

Belotti added a fourth after 67 minutes, the Torino striker latching onto Bernardeschi's pass and firing past Benedettini from eight yards. 

Pessina stroked home a fifth in the 75th minute after Gaetano Castrovilli had struck the post from outside the penalty area, while Politano added his second two minutes later with a fine volley from 12 yards.

Atalanta midfielder Pessina then rounded off the scoring four minutes from full-time with a poked finish from a tight angle.

Davide Calabria should be fit to return for next season after undergoing surgery on a sports hernia, Milan have confirmed.

The full-back has not been included in Italy's provisional squad for Euro 2020, so his season was already over after helping Milan qualify for the Champions League with a 2-0 win over Atalanta on Sunday.

Calabria played 36 times across all competitions for Milan in 2020-21, scoring twice and providing one assist from 26 chances created, while also helping Stefano Pioli's team keep 11 clean sheets.

The 24-year-old may well feel hard done by to have missed out on Roberto Mancini's 33-man selection, which will be cut to 26 by the deadline of midnight on June 1.

His numbers stack up well when compared to the three right-backs included in Mancini's squad – Alessandro Florenzi, Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Manuel Lazzari.

Napoli's Di Lorenzo is the be standout option from an attacking perspective, having scored four goals and teed up a further seven in all competitions, with his 62 chances created far better than the efforts Calabria, Florenzi or Lazzari (both 28).

Defensively, however, Calabria seems to the outstanding candidate. He attempted 105 tackles, 10 more than Di Lorenzo and far ahead of Florenzi (38), who spent the season on loan at Paris Saint-Germain, and Lazio wing-back Lazzari (29), with an impressive 61.9 per cent success rate. 

Calabria went into 333 duels, winning 200 – more than either Florenzi or Lazzari – and he won 32 of his 62 aerial battles, with Di Lorenzo bettering the Milan man for interceptions (47, compared to 41).

He did attempt fewer open-play crosses (78) than any of his counterparts, with only 21 of them finding a team-mate, although Calabria's tally of 130 passes into the final third was second only to Di Lorenzo (153).

Nevertheless, Calabria's focus will now be on Milan's 2021-22 campaign, with the club confirming a planned recovery time of six weeks.

A Milan statement read: "The operation, performed by videolaparoscopy by Dr Giuseppe Sansonetti in the presence of Rossoneri doctor Lucio Genesio, was perfectly successful."

Sassuolo forward Giacomo Raspadori is in line for an Italy debut after Roberto Mancini named him in an initial 33-man squad ahead of Euro 2020.

On the day Mancini extended his contract until after the 2026 World Cup, the Azzurri head coach confirmed a first group to face San Marino in a May 28 friendly.

Italy have to trim that selection to 26 men for the rescheduled European Championship finals, with a second warm-up fixture following against the Czech Republic on June 4.

Raspadori will hope he can impress Mancini in order to play a part having come to the fore for Sassuolo since the March international break.

The 21-year-old had a goal and an assist across just 110 minutes in the European Under-21 Championship group stage during that period, having only made his Italy U21 bow in September.

Raspadori has since scored five goals in nine Serie A games for Sassuolo, netting with 31.3 per cent of his shots at a rate of one every 127 minutes. He had only a single goal in 18 league matches prior to this run.

The forward joins the usual established Azzurri stars, including Marco Verratti, Ciro Immobile and Leonardo Bonucci.


Italy squad in full:

Alessio Cragno (Cagliari), Gianluigi Donnarumma (Milan), Alex Meret (Napoli), Salvatore Sirigu (Torino); Francesco Acerbi (Lazio), Alessandro Bastoni (Inter), Cristiano Biraghi (Fiorentina), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Giovanni Di Lorenzo (Napoli), Alessandro Florenzi (Paris Saint-Germain), Manuel Lazzari (Lazio), Gianluca Mancini (Roma), Leonardo Spinazzola (Roma), Rafael Toloi (Atalanta); Nicolo Barella (Inter), Gaetano Castrovilli (Fiorentina), Bryan Cristante (Roma), Manuel Locatelli (Sassuolo), Lorenzo Pellegrini (Roma), Matteo Pessina (Atalanta), Stefano Sensi (Inter), Marco Verratti (Paris Saint-Germain); Andrea Belotti (Torino), Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo), Federico Bernardeschi (Juventus), Federico Chiesa (Juventus), Vincenzo Grifo (Freiburg), Ciro Immobile (Lazio), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Moise Kean (Paris Saint-Germain), Matteo Politano (Napoli), Giacomo Raspadori (Sassuolo).

Roberto Mancini has been given a significant vote of confidence by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) after signing a new contract that will keep him in charge of Italy until after the 2026 World Cup.

Mancini was appointed in May 2018, taking over from caretaker manager Luigi Di Biagio after he had replaced Gian Piero Ventura the previous November.

Ventura had failed to guide Italy to the 2018 World Cup, the Azzurri losing out to Sweden in a play-off.

It was the first World Cup Italy had missed since 1958 and forced the FIGC into a serious rethink before turning to Mancini, one of the nation's most-respected coaches.

He was initially appointed only until 2020, with an automatic extension to be granted upon qualification for Euro 2020, which Italy duly achieved with three matches to spare.

That triggered a two-year extension to run until after the 2022 World Cup, but the FIGC is seemingly so impressed with Mancini that they have deemed him worthy of a long-term deal.

Speaking at the end of the FIGC's federal council meeting, president Gabriele Gravina is quoted by ANSA as saying: "It is an investment of the federation for the future, and one that we owed to the fans.

"I am very happy, because as Roberto knows, it was an objective of the federation to continue this job and give it continuity in the future."

Mancini, who was also in attendance, added: "I am very happy, I thank the Federation and I thank the president.

"We have extended the contract, there will be many events and as the president said it is not easy to win, but we are trying to carry out a job that was started three years ago, which up to now has given good results.

"We have many young players to focus on, especially in the youth national teams, so our hope is that this work can bear fruit very quickly, we are very positive."

Mancini's Italy broke a longstanding national team record in November 2019 as they won 10 consecutive matches with a 3-0 result against Bosnia-Herzegovina, the streak eventually ending at 11.

They won all of their Euro 2020 qualifiers and their 10 victories in 2019 set a new record for the most wins in a calendar year for the national team.

Italy were drawn into Group A for the Euros, which start next month, meaning they will face Turkey, Wales and Switzerland for the right to reach the knockout phase.

Gianluigi Buffon has called time on his second spell at Juventus, concluding a defining playing association with the Serie A giants.

There may only be three clubs on the goalkeeping great's resume but sustained excellence over more than two decades has filled his trophy cabinet with individual and team honours. 

The former Parma prodigy has rubbed shoulders with the very best in world football throughout that time, forming part of Serie A, Ligue 1 and World Cup-winning sides.

In honour of Buffon's stellar career, we have compiled a star-studded group of former team-mates for a dream XI.

 

GOALKEEPER: GIANLUIGI BUFFON

Who else has the pedigree to don the gloves in such a side?

A five-time member of the UEFA Team of the Year, he boasts more Serie A clean sheets than any other player and, as captain of his country from 2010 until his retirement in 2018, would have no trouble bringing this team together.

RIGHT-BACK: LILIAN THURAM

Having been joined by Buffon at Parma after his switch from Monaco in 1996, Thuram followed his team-mate in making the move to Turin ahead of the 2001-02 campaign.

The 142-time France international, part of the side that tasted glory at the 1998 World Cup on home soil and won Euro 2000, spent five seasons at Juve before rounding out his career with a spell at Barcelona.

CENTRE-BACK: FABIO CANNAVARO

Buffon's inheritance of the Italy armband from Cannavaro in 2010 completed the striking symmetry of their careers.

They both made their Parma debuts in 1995, did the same for Italy in 1997 and were reunited at club level when Cannavaro, one of few defenders to win the Ballon d'Or, joined Juve in 2004. They also lifted the World Cup together in 2006.

CENTRE-BACK: ALESSANDRO NESTA

A long-time rival at club level, Nesta was part of the famous Milan defence that beat Juve in the 2002-03 Champions League final – he scored his penalty against Buffon in a 3-2 shoot-out victory – and triumphed again four seasons later.

He was named in the Team of the Tournament at Euro 2000, which Buffon missed through injury, but the 2006 World Cup success will undoubtedly be the highlight of his career.

LEFT-BACK: PAOLO MALDINI

With admirable longevity, loyalty and leadership, classy defender Maldini set the path that Buffon has so impressively followed.

The long-time Rossoneri skipper, a seven-time Scudetto winner who also lifted the European Cup on five occasions, Maldini was the only player to have managed more Serie A appearances than the veteran keeper until his Juve return.

CENTRAL MIDFIELD: ANDREA PIRLO

Has there been a more iconic duo of the modern era?

Pirlo was already at the top by the time he swapped Milan for Juve, but he saved plenty of his play-making brilliance for Buffon and friends as the Bianconeri re-asserted themselves as Italy's top club with a run of successive Scudetti that stretched to nine before being ended by Inter this season as their reunion as player and head coach did not yield similar results.

CENTRAL MIDFIELD: PAVEL NEDVED

Nedved's blend of athleticism, tenacity and well-rounded technical ability made him close to the complete midfielder.

He helped Czech Republic to the final of Euro 1996 and his value to Juve was summed up by a Ballon d'Or victory in 2003.

ATTACKING MIDFIELD: ROBERTO BAGGIO

Less than two years after a 17-year-old Buffon held Baggio and Milan scoreless on his senior debut for Parma, the pair were sharing the same shirt for Italy.

Two of the Azzurri's greatest were in the same squad at the 1998 World Cup, although Buffon would ultimately go one better than the 1993 Ballon d'Or winner, who suffered final heartache against Brazil at USA 94.

ATTACKING MIDFIELD: ALESSANDRO DEL PIERO

He stands as an equal in the pantheon of Juve luminaries.

Buffon and the majestic Del Piero combined to help the Bianconeri finish top of Serie A on five occasions, while they lined up for Italy together for over a decade and experienced World Cup glory together

FORWARD: CRISTIANO RONALDO

Ronaldo joined Juve as Buffon embarked upon his hiatus with Paris Saint-Germain. The five-time Ballon d'Or winner was supposed to add Champions League glory to domestic dominance and now Juventus have neither.

Nevertheless, Ronaldo's individual form has remained imperious. In 127 appearances for the Bianconceri, he has 97 goals at a rate of a goal every 113 minutes.

FORWARD: KYLIAN MBAPPE

They were only together for a year but the France phenomenon is a performer to compare with many of the greats to have shared a dressing room with Buffon.

Fresh from 2018 World Cup success with France, Mbappe scored 39 goals in 43 appearances for PSG in 2018-19, averaging 90.25 minutes per goal and boasting a shot conversion rate of 22 per cent.

Gianluigi Buffon has confirmed he will leave Juventus but the Italy great says he might not be ready to retire.

The 43-year-old returned to Juve in 2019 following a season away at Paris Saint-Germain and has been second choice to Wojciech Szczesny since.

Buffon's announcement on Tuesday arguably did not come as a surprise; however, the fact he is still contemplating playing on may have raised some eyebrows.

If he does continue his playing career, whoever his next employers are will certainly be able to count on plenty of experience and knowhow.

Buffon is one of the sport's few stars who have played top-level football into their fifth decade.

Here are seven other legends who set an example for Buffon to follow with their remarkably long careers in the game.

 

RYAN GIGGS

The ultimate one-club man, Ryan Giggs stayed at Manchester United for the entirety of his glittering career. He managed to slowly transform himself from a rapid, tricky winger into a cultured central midfielder in the latter years of his playing days, helping to extend his time on the pitch beyond the age of 40. Giggs won an extraordinary haul of medals at Old Trafford, including 13 Premier League titles, four FA Cups and a pair of Champions League crowns. He played in 632 Premier League games, scoring 109 goals, with only Gareth Barry topping his appearance tally. Giggs worked as Louis van Gaal's assistant at United, having taken charge on an interim basis following the sacking of David Moyes, before going on to take charge of his country in 2018. He has been temporarily replaced as Wales boss after he was charged with assaulting two women last year, allegations that Giggs denies.

PAOLO MALDINI

Paolo Maldini was still going strong for Milan beyond his 40th birthday and, like Giggs, he only ever played for one club. Seven league titles and an incredible five European Cup/Champions League wins headline a litany of honours that Maldini helped marshal at San Siro, playing across their near impenetrable back four for almost 25 years. Maldini, son of another Milan legend, Cesare, is one of a select group of players who made over 1,000 appearances in all competitions during their career. Today, the former Italy man is back at Milan, acting as their technical director.

KAZUYOSHI MIURA

Kazuyoshi Miura is still playing, at the age of 54. That the Japanese striker made his debut almost 10 years before Buffon begins to tell part of his incredible tale. Known as King Kazu, Miura plays for Yokohama FC in Japan's top flight, becoming the club's oldest ever player at 53 in September last year. The oldest player and goalscorer in the history of global professional football, Miura is regarded as one of the finest Asian players never to have featured at a World Cup, although he made 89 appearances for his country.

 

STANLEY MATTHEWS

Before Miura snatched them off him, Stanley Matthews held the records for being both the oldest professional footballer and the oldest goalscorer in the game. Matthews - the Wizard of Dribble - made nearly 700 league appearances for Stoke City and Blackpool in a career that spanned three decades. The 1953 FA Cup final is regarded as the Matthews Final, even though Blackpool's Stan Mortensen scored a hat-trick. Matthews won the first European Footballer of the Year award, while he was officially capped for England 54 times, although he also played a host of unofficial wartime games for his country.

DINO ZOFF

Goalkeepers often play deep into their thirties, but not many captain their country to World Cup glory at the age of 40. But that is exactly what Dino Zoff did at the World Cup in 1982. He made 40 appearances in World Cup finals and qualifiers in total, while as a coach he led Italy to the final of Euro 2000. It must be something about Juventus, as Buffon's current club is also where Zoff spent the best years of his career, winning six Serie A titles.

RIVALDO

Best known for his spell at Barcelona in club football, Brazil great Rivaldo was still playing beyond his 40th birthday, albeit only briefly. Rivaldo came out of retirement to sign for Mogi Mirim, the club where his son Rivaldinho was also on the books. Rivaldo picked up two LaLiga titles at Barcelona before continuing his European adventure with Milan, winning the 2002–03 Champions League with the Rossoneri. But it is as a Brazil international that Rivaldo is best remembered, having been a key part of the side that won the World Cup in 2002.

 

ROGER MILLA

Roger Milla became the World Cup's oldest scorer when he hit the net for Cameroon in 1994 at the age of 42, having announced himself at the same tournament four years previously with his famous corner-flag dance. Milla's four goals at the 1990 World Cup helped Cameroon to reach the quarter-finals of the tournament and he is fondly regarded as one of Africa's greatest ever players. Remarkably, Milla regained the African Footballer of the Year title 14 years after he first won the award.

Leonardo Bonucci has joined Juventus team-mate Merih Demiral in testing positive for coronavirus, the Serie A giants have confirmed.

The 33-year-old returned from international duty with Italy on Thursday, a day after the Italian Football Federation announced four members of staff had also returned positive tests.

Bonucci will now begin a period of self-isolation that could keep him out of Serie A games with Torino, Napoli and Genoa over the next 10 days.

A statement on Juventus' official website on Thursday read: "Leonardo Bonucci, upon returning from the Italian national team, this morning underwent a diagnostic molecular test for COVID-19 which came back positive. 

"The player has already been placed in home isolation."

Juve confirmed earlier on Thursday that fellow defender Merih Demiral tested positive for COVID-19 on March 26 while away on international duty with Turkey.

Demiral was granted permission to return to Italy on a specially arranged flight and is isolating at the club's J Hotel.

According to reports from Italy, meanwhile, Juve intend to fine a trio of players for breaching coronavirus restrictions by attending a party.

Roberto Mancini has set his sights on World Cup glory with Italy, though his first aim may well be to push for enlarged squads at Euro 2020.

Italy made it three wins from three to start their World Cup 2022 qualification campaign by seeing off Lithuania by the now familiar scoreline of 2-0. 

Goals from Stefano Sensi and Ciro Immobile bookended the second half on Wednesday, as Italy took a three-point lead in Group C.

The Azzurri have won their last five matches 2-0, and are unbeaten in 25 games under Mancini, which brings him level with Marcelo Lippi's best haul – only Vittorio Pozzo (30) has managed a better such streak.

Lippi guided Italy to a 2006 World Cup success, and Mancini did not shy away from wanting to emulate one of his predecessors.

"I'm happy we are top of the group, it's pleasing, but records are standalone issues compared to real results," he told reporters.

"I hope to match Lippi at the World Cup, maybe in December 2022."

With three qualifying wins under their belt, Italy's focus will now switch to the upcoming Euros, rearranged from last year.

Mancini picked a 38-man squad for this latest round of internationals, and suggested it would be prudent for UEFA to accommodate larger squads than the usual 23 at this year's tournament. 

"I think it could be a good idea to be able to name bigger squads for Euro 2020," Mancini said.

"I think it could be the right thing to do. The problem would above all be if a couple of players had problems in the tournament, as it's difficult to call them back after that, when players are on vacation."

Italy recorded 29 shots against Lithuania, with 11 of them on target – the excellent Tomas Svedkauskas pulling off nine saves.

Immobile, who scored from the spot with the last kick of the game, was particularly wasteful, sending a close-range header wide after seeing two efforts saved by Svedkauskas.

The 31-year-old Lazio forward has scored eight goals in World Cup qualifiers, the joint-third most in Italy's history – along with Daniele De Rossi – and Mancini believes fatigue played a big part in Immobile's profligate display.

"Ciro gave everything he could today," Mancini added. "The players aren't in the best shape right now, they are lacking sharpness, but the goals will come more consistently for him."

Italy continued their 100 per cent start to World Cup qualifying as Stefano Sensi and Ciro Immobile sealed a 2-0 win over Lithuania.

With main rivals Switzerland not in action on Wednesday, Roberto Mancini's side capitalised to take a three-point lead at the top of Group C.

Sensi's 47th-minute effort put them ahead, with Immobile, who had squandered several gilt-edged chances, scoring a penalty with the final kick of the game.

Immobile's previous profligacy would have proved costly if not for Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy's goalkeeper producing a fantastic save from Tautvydas Eliosius to set the stage for the Lazio forward to make amends from the spot late on.

Italy were far from at their best against Bulgaria on Sunday, but Roberto Mancini did not expect anything different from his side.

Mancini's unbeaten run as Italy boss was extended to 24 games – one shy of Marcello Lippi's longest streak and just six off the all-time record, set by Vittorio Pozzo in the 1930s – as goals from Andrea Belotti and Manuel Locatelli sealed a 2-0 win in World Cup qualifying.

The victory took Italy, who beat Northern Ireland in their opening fixture, level on points with Switzerland at the top of Group C.

A much-changed Italy team dominated possession (67.6 per cent), and had 22 attempts, albeit 12 of these were blocked and only six were on target.

Indeed, the tight nature of the game is reflected by the fact that Federico Bernardeschi – who came on as a 76th-minute substitute – registered a game-high three chances, having entered the fray when the match was more of an open contest.

It was 1-0 at that stage, with Belotti's first-half penalty having opened the scoring. Locatelli was then on hand to curl in his first Italy goal – four of the last seven goals scored by the Azzurri have now been netted by Sassuolo players – and put the result beyond all doubt.

While they may have faulted at times in attack, Italy were rock solid in defence, keeping a sixth straight clean sheet on the road, which is their longest run.

In no mood to pick fault with his side, Mancini told RAI Sport: "All games are difficult, especially against teams like Bulgaria who put everyone behind the ball and just wait for the counter-attack.

"Until you find the breakthrough, there are no spaces and it makes life difficult.

"We are at a moment of the season where the players are a little tired. We didn't allow a single chance in the first half, and we only did in the second after we wasted numerous opportunities to extend our lead.

"As I said, there is no such thing as an easy match. The other teams don't give you space and instead just try to neutralise you. Until you get the opening goal, that's at a deadlock.

"I still think we put in a very good performance in the circumstances. We tried after the second goal tonight to score a third, which is what we should've done against Northern Ireland.

"I don’t see other sides winning 7-0 or 8-0 either this week. We know goal difference is important, but the points mean even more and we hope to beat Switzerland."

Andrea Belotti was on target and Manuel Locatelli netted his first international goal as Italy continued their perfect start to World Cup qualifying with a 2-0 win over Bulgaria.

Roberto Mancini's men dispatched Northern Ireland 2-0 in their Group C opener on Thursday and joined Switzerland on six points with a routine victory from a rather stale contest in Sofia.

Belotti, who scored on his last Italy appearance in November, put them ahead – his penalty breaking the deadlock in the 43rd minute.

Italy's number nine missed two chances to put the result beyond all doubt but, with Bulgaria hardly offering a threat going the other way, Locatelli's superb finish wrapped up the points late on.

Federico Chiesa snatched at the only opening of a cagey opening half-an-hour, the Juventus winger flashing wide after latching onto Marco Verratti's pass.

Despite failing to register a shot on target, Italy got a chance to go ahead when Belotti was bundled over in the 42nd minute.

Taking the penalty he won, the Torino striker made no mistake, planting a firm finish into the bottom-left corner.

Bulgaria were furious not to be awarded a penalty of their own 11 minutes after the restart, with their appeals for a handball from Stefano Sensi dismissed.

Gianluigi Donnarumma had to make a superb save in the same move, though Birsent Karagaren was subsequently flagged offside.

Belotti twice went close as Italy pressed to settle the contest, hitting the post with a deft lob before lashing over on the rebound.

Yet there was little chance Italy would be left to rue Belotti's profligacy, and any lingering Bulgaria hopes were dashed when Locatelli curled in his maiden Azzurri goal.

It was not sealed in the fashion they would have hoped for, but Wales could belatedly celebrate Six Nations glory on Friday.

Wayne Pivac's side had missed the chance to claim a Grand Slam triumph last week in a heartbreaking last-gasp defeat to France.

But with France needing a bonus-point win by a 21-point margin in Friday's rearranged clash with Scotland - delayed due to an earlier COVID-19 outbreak - to deny Wales again, Les Bleus' loss in Paris handed them the title.

"It's a real emotional rollercoaster, the last seven days really," Wales head coach Pivac said on Saturday.

He added: "It was just different and that's what we've come to expect from this pandemic really.

"It was evident that we had to go and do something different and that was to watch us win a championship from our living room."

That was far from the only first in a tournament with its fair share of twists and turns, though, as Opta data shows.
 

MORE TRIES, MORE DRAMA

There were six tries in Friday's frantic affair at the Stade de France and that contributed to a new Six Nations record.

A total of 86 tries were scored across the 15 matches, the most in a single edition of the tournament in its history.

And Scotland's dramatic 27-23 success, sealed with an 80th-minute Duhan van der Merwe score, was a fitting end to the competition.

Eight of the 15 games were decided by margins of five points or fewer, another new benchmark.

"There were some great games," Pivac said. "It was just a shame we didn't have crowds. You can imagine how much of an atmosphere would have been generated.

"It was a good advertisement for the game and a lot of nations are heading in the right direction. It's exciting."

Van der Merwe beat two defenders in the decisive fixture and in doing so set a new tournament high of 31, surpassing Brian O'Driscoll's 30 defenders beaten in 2000.

The wing's brace also saw him become the first Scotland player to finish a Six Nations campaign as the outright leading try scorer (five).

France needed to score at least one more try in order to have a chance of snatching the championship, but they still matched their best haul of 18 from 2006.

Not all the records were quite so impressive.

Italy conceded 239 points, 34 tries and had a points difference of -184, the worst such tallies for any team in an edition of the Six Nations.
 

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Wales' title was their sixth since Italy were introduced to the tournament to form the Six Nations in 2000.

Four of their previous five had been Grand Slam successes, a record over this period they could not extend thanks to France's epic win last week.

But Wales are now only one Six Nations crown behind England's seven.

"It gives us a lot of confidence to feel like we're on the right track," the title-winning coach said. "We can't get ahead of ourselves."

This was not a tournament England will reflect on fondly, even as captain Owen Farrell became only the third man - after Ronan O'Gara and Jonny Wilkinson - to reach 500 points in the Five/Six Nations.

Eddie Jones' outfit came in as defending champions but slumped to their joint-worst Six Nations finish, coming fifth as they had in 2018.

England also lost against Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the same Five/Six Nations campaign for the first time since 1976.

At the bottom of the table, though, there was no change.

Italy have picked up the Wooden Spoon in each of the past six years, this after finishing bottom of the championship just once in the prior four seasons.

Roberto Mancini and Leonardo Bonucci acknowledged there is room for improvement from Italy, despite kicking off their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign with a routine 2-0 win over Northern Ireland.

Domenico Berardi scored for the third international running and Ciro Immobile doubled the Azzurri's lead before half-time in Thursday's Group C clash at Stadio Ennio Tardini.

After managing five attempts on target in a dominant first half, however, Italy dropped off in the second period and failed to test Bailey Peacock-Farrell on a single occasion.

Northern Ireland went close to pulling one back through strikes from Gavin Whyte, Michael Smith and Steven Davis, while Paddy McNair blazed over from a good position late on.

The victory was Italy's fourth in a row without conceding and extended their unbeaten run to 23 matches.

But Mancini was not pleased with what he saw in the second half of the game in Parma, which he put down to the lengthy break between matches for his side.

"After four months, the first half was excellent and we should've scored more goals," he told Rai Sport.

"We'll have to review the second half with the team, because we must do better than that. The first half was perfect and we should've had more goals.

"Perhaps we started to take a few too many touches after the break and the ball moved slowly, but that can happen after four months of not seeing each other.

"We could've won by a bigger margin in the first half, but we knew Northern Ireland were a physical side who could cause us problems. We made too many mistakes.

"The ball can go long at times, especially when we're pressed like that and the opposition are defending in numbers."

Italy's possession count dropped from 72.6 per cent in the first half to 59.6 in the second and they regularly gifted the ball to their opponents.

Bonucci, who became the eighth player to win 100 caps for Italy with his appearance on Thursday, accepted lessons can be learned from the contest.

"It's important that we kept a clean sheet, even if we made a lot of mistakes in the second half and need to improve, especially when we're in possession," he said.

"But what I've always liked since Mancini took over is the attitude. We face everyone without fear, we keep our nerve and go out there to win every game.

"It means there's a lot of hard work behind it, from the players and the staff, because the ideas are clear and we drill them in very quickly.

"The young players here have a lot of talent, along with the spirit of sacrifice and hard work, so these are the results."

With his 14th-minute strike in Parma, Immobile has now been directly involved in seven goals in his last seven starts for Italy - four goals and three assists.

It was a rare goal from open play, however, and the Lazio striker celebrated wildly at the empty ground.

"I felt a weight off my shoulders because I hadn't scored from open play for a year and a half in the Italy shirt," he told Rai Sport.

"I slipped on the first chance, the goalkeeper was there on the second, so I was feeling frustrated and let it all out after the third chance went in.

"Having competition for places only makes you more determined to find the net and help the team. [Andrea] Belotti scored last time, I got the goal this time, so there needs to be more faith in this Italy side."

Italy join second seeds Switzerland on three points at the top of Group C and travel to Sofia on Sunday to face Bulgaria in their next qualifier.

Mancini, who is one of only three coaches to stay unbeaten in his first 15 home matches in charge of Italy after Enzo Bearzot and Marcello Lippi, hinted he will heavily rotate his side for that match.

"We need to change something. We need some fresh players," he said at his post-match news conference. "Nothing should change on the pitch, even if we were to alter five players."

Italy kicked off their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign with a straightforward 2-0 win over Northern Ireland at Stadio Ennio Tardini on Thursday.

The Azzurri entered the contest without defeat in 22 games and that unbeaten run never looked under threat from the moment Domenico Berardi opened the scoring 14 minutes in.

Ciro Immobile doubled the lead for Roberto Mancini's in-form side seven minutes before half-time and the hosts saw out victory despite an improved Northern Ireland display in the second period.

The win moves Italy level on three points with second seeds Switzerland - 3-1 victors against Bulgaria earlier on Thursday - at the top of Group C after their opening fixtures.

Northern Ireland were given an early warning when Immobile chested down Alessandro Florenzi's floated pass and fired straight at Bailey Peacock-Farrell, but there was no stopping Berardi's strike three minutes later.

The Sassuolo forward was played into space down the right by Florenzi and lifted the ball away from Peacock-Farrell at his near post to become the first Italy player to score in three successive matches under Mancini.

Italy continued to patiently probe away and had a second goal through Immobile's drive past Peacock-Farrell - again at the visiting keeper's front post - after being played in by Lorenzo Insigne on the counter.

Gianluigi Donnarumma was called into action twice in quick succession 11 minutes into the second half to keep out Gavin Whyte's volley and Michael Smith's follow-up attempt.

Milan stopper Donnarumma was the busier of the two goalkeepers in the second period, with Craig Cathcart and Steven Davis the next players to be denied, but there was to be no way through as Mancini's men triumphed again.

The international break might bring respite from the packed club calendar, but with Qatar 2022 now just 20 months away, top players have little chance for rest.

Still, the start of the European World Cup qualifiers brings an opportunity for the new names on the international scene to impress, particularly with more established stars unlikely to be involved in every minute of matches over these two weeks.

Several of the continent's top teams have offered first-time call-ups to those enjoying fine form and, while some were anticipated, others have left even the players themselves surprised.

We have picked through a selection of the new faces to look out for, with a sprinkling of Opta data to highlight why they deserve a chance to impress for their country.

 

Belgium: Orel Mangala and Albert Sambi Lokonga

Stuttgart's Orel Mangala has been linked with Arsenal and RB Leipzig due to his performances for Stuttgart this season. Only three midfielders have regained possession more often in the Bundesliga than the 23-year-old (166).

Also hoping to make his senior Belgium debut at the heart of midfield is Albert Sambi Lokonga, who assumed the captain's armband at Anderlecht less than a month after turning 21.

Lokonga, who could get a chance in place of the injured Axel Witsel, has regained possession 35 more times than any team-mate this season (157) and is also fourth for chances created (22).

Croatia: Kristijan Lovric

With Ante Rebic and Bruno Petkovic injured, the coming matches could offer a real chance to impress for Kristijan Lovric.

The HNK Gorica star is second in the top scorer standings in Croatia's top flight, with 15 goals in 24 appearances. With four assists also to his name, Lovric is behind only Tottenham's Europa League slayer Mislav Orsic and Ramon Mierez (both on 20) for direct goal involvements this season.

It's a seriously impressive return for the 25-year-old, particularly as he plays predominantly wide on the left of the Gorica attack.

England: Ollie Watkins

West Brom goalkeeper Sam Johnstone may get the chance to win a first senior England cap, but a man almost certain to be given a chance in attack is Ollie Watkins.

The Aston Villa forward became the 10th Premier League player to score a hat-trick against Liverpool, and the first in a decade, in October's extraordinary 7-2 win over the reigning champions.

He has 10 in the top flight this term, while only captain Jack Grealish (17) has had more direct goal involvements than Watkins (15) in all competitions for Villa this season. Not bad for a man who was playing in England's sixth tier just six years ago.

 

Germany: Florian Wirtz and Jamal Musiala

Rising Bayern Munich star Jamal Musiala was expected to be named in Joachim Low's squad after he pledged his international future to Germany rather than England.

The 18-year-old, who only signed his first professional contract this month, is Bayern's youngest ever Champions League goalscorer and has already played 18 times in the Bundesliga this season.

Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz has also earned the right to shine on the senior stage. He is one of just two players under the age of 20 to be directly involved in at least eight goals across the top-five European leagues this season.

Italy: Rafael Toloi and Matteo Ricci

Brazilian-born Rafael Toloi has made it to the age of 30 without a senior international appearance, but his performances for Gian Piero Gasperini's outstanding Atalanta side made him hard to overlook.

Toloi averages seven possession regains per match for Atalanta this season and is comfortable when using the ball, completing 493 passes in the opposition half, the most of any Atalanta defender barring Berat Djimsiti.

Spezia midfielder Matteo Ricci, meanwhile, boasts 19 chances created in Serie A this season as well as 151 times winning back the ball, by far the highest tally for his team.

Netherlands: Jeremiah St Juste

Jeremiah St Juste has impressed at the back for Mainz this season, despite their involvement in a tense battle to avoid the drop.

There are only five Bundesliga defenders to win more tackles and duels combined than the 24-year-old this season (he has managed 165).

Previously a full-back with Feyenoord, St Juste brings a vital commodity to modern central defending: speed. Last season, he clocked a sprint of 22.1 miles per hour, bettered only at the time by Bayern winger Kingsley Coman.

Poland: Kacper Kozlowski

A relative unknown outside Poland, even Kacper Kozlowski himself was shocked to be called up to Paulo Sousa's squad this month.

Clearly, though, he has caught the eye for some all-action displays in the top flight for Pogon Szczecin. The 17-year-old averages 8.3 duels won and 17 passes ending in the final third per 90 minutes, each the most of any teenage midfielder in the competition.

Kozlowski, who is also renowned for a fierce long-range shot, has been linked with some of the world's biggest clubs since making his senior debut at just 15, with Manchester United said to be among them.

 

Portugal: Joao Palhinha and Nuno Mendes

Linked with Manchester City (among others), Sporting CP full-back Nuno Mendes has been described as the standout young talent in Portugal's top flight.

Only Wilson Manafa (49) has completed more dribbles among defenders this season than Mendes (29), who has played in all but four of the unbeaten leaders' league matches.

The 18-year-old is joined in the Portugal squad by team-mate Joao Palhinha, a robust midfielder who has won 208 duels in the Primeira Liga in 2020-21 – no player in his position has won more.

Spain: Bryan Gil and Pedri

Pedri has been a revelation for Barcelona in his first season at Camp Nou, establishing himself as a key part of Ronald Koeman's midfield despite only turning 18 last November.

He has played 42 times already in 2020-21, the most of anyone at the club, and became the youngest player to record 100 touches in a single LaLiga game for at least 15 years against Osasuna this month.

Bryan Gil, meanwhile, has been thriving on loan at Eibar from Sevilla and in January became the second player born this century to score twice in the same LaLiga match, following in the footsteps of Ansu Fati.

 

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