Roberto Mancini tinkered with the components of his team on Sunday but still the Azzurri purred like a highly-tuned Italian sports car into the business end of Euro 2020.
After impressive 3-0 wins over Turkey and Switzerland had guaranteed a last-16 spot, Mancini made eight changes for their final Group A clash against Wales in Rome.
Often when managers decide to rotate their troops it can lead to a disjointed performance which serves to clarify why some are in the first-choice XI and others are not.
But the players who beat the Welsh 1-0 on Sunday showed that even Italy’s so-called “shadow team” can slot straight in and maintain the seemingly unstoppable momentum they have built up in a national record equalling 30-match unbeaten run.
The all-new front three of Federico Chiesa, Federico Bernardeschi and Andrea Belotti gave the Wales defence a torrid time with their slick movement and inter-play.
Matteo Pessina, another of the eight changes, scored the goal, providing a deft finish to a free kick played in by Paris St Germain midfielder Marco Verratti, making his first start of the tournament after recovering from injury.
Verratti oozed class and will now come into the reckoning for the knockout phase, which Mancini described as like a different tournament after Sunday’s win — Italy’s 11th in a row without conceding a goal.
Bernardeschi struck the post with a free kick, Belotti, Italy’s top scorer in qualifying but relegated to the bench for the finals, was a lively presence and UEFA’s man-of-the-match Chiesa offered width and pace down the right-hand side.
Perhaps the only glitch was that had Italy’s finishing matched their dazzling approach play they would have won by a much larger margin against a Wales side reduced to 10 men after a red card for Ethan Ampadu early in the second half.
Even so their seven goals is a joint Italian record for the group phase of a Euros or World Cup and their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup seems a distant memory.
Just as in the two previous games Italy pressed hard to win the ball and produced several fluent moves starting from their own defence that would have graced Brazilian sides of old.
Such was Mancini’s comfort that he even sent on reserve goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu for the last five minutes, clearly wanting to make every squad member feel he has a role to play.
“The identity has remained the same and I think it is important, I say that changing a few players shouldn’t change anything because everyone knows what they have to do, and the product doesn’t change,” Mancini said.
With a trip to Wembley next to face a likely last-16 clash against either Ukraine or Austria, Mancini’s side have thrust themselves to the front of the pack as potential champions.
While other coaches fret over line-ups, formations and players struggling for form, former Manchester City manager Mancini looks a picture of contentment.
Verratti summed up the happy mood in the Italian camp.
“When we say that this team is for everyone, we’re not just saying that. There are 26 of us and all of us are proud to represent our country and ready to give our best,” he said.
“We are so fortunate and honoured to play for this team and it’s a pure pleasure to be here, whether we play or not.”
By Martyn Herman