ROME: Sooner or later, the debate around the no.9 position in the Italy Men’s National Team must be settled once and for all. How long have we been here?
Even while the Azzurri were winning the 2020 European Championship two years ago, the media and the fans were busy bickering about whether Ciro Immobile deserved his spot.
Let’s get this straight. Deciding who starts up front for Italy is no small matter and it’s a call that should be taken in a deliberate and measured way.
But one thing we saw that summer in 2021 was that Roberto Mancini saw the rewards for blocking out the noise and committing to his man in time for a major tournament.
With the 2024 European Championship just seven months away, it’s still uncertain whether the Azzurri will be in Germany to launch a title defence, let alone who will start up front for them if they are.
Italy just need to avoid defeat against Ukraine on Monday to ensure automatic qualification and should they get over the line, it’s surely time to commit wholeheartedly to Giacomo Raspadori being the main man next summer.
Luciano Spalletti‘s side went one point from qualification following Friday’s goal fest against North Macedonia in Rome largely thanks to the efforts of their striker.
Raspadori‘s goal was by far the most celebrated of the night despite being Italy‘s fourth, as it arrived with 10 minutes to go after the visitors had somehow clawed their way back from 3-0 down to 3-2 to spark fears of an extraordinary collapse.
The Napoli man’s arrowed finish gave the Azzurri a cushion, allowed the fans to breathe again, and was no less than he deserved on a night when he also set up Matteo Darmian‘s opener and had a clever dinked finish chalked off for offside.
During Euro 2024 qualifying, Italy have started four different strikers in seven games – Raspadori (three times), Mateo Retegui (twice), Immobile and Gianluca Scamacca. The same quartet chopped and changed in the role during the 2022/23 Nations League campaign, but Raspadori has proven to be the most popular and most effective option.
Italy won six of their seven games in those tournaments when Raspadori started.
In that time he scored three goals, although this return needs to stop being such a laser focus in discussions around the Azzurri.
Yes, strikers should chip in with goals, but it’s also important they aren’t judged solely on that basis.
Raspadori‘s performance against North Macedonia impressed because of his movement and link-up play, the way the team attacked, created and pressed with the Napoli man leading the line. His goal was just a bonus.
Launching the ball forward towards one prolific goalscorer wouldn’t be a particularly desirable strategy for Italy even if they had Erling Haaland in their ranks.
But for those who need empirical evidence to support Raspadori‘s selection, it’s there to be found.
Italy have scored 11 of their 16 Euro 2024 qualifying goals in the three games with Raspadori in the starting XI, and they boast a 100% winning record.
The Azzurri have had more shots on average (20 to 13) and a better average xG (2.03 to 1.84) with Raspadori starting.
Furthermore, Raspadori has taken his audition for the Italy no.9 role to his club as well.
Previously, one argument against him would be that he wasn’t a ‘natural’ striker and didn’t get regular game time as a no.9 for Napoli, where Victor Osimhen rules the roost.
But during the Nigerian’s recent injury, the former Sassuolo man has led the line admirably for the Italian champions through a tricky spell that cost Rudi Garcia his job.
Things have been far from smooth sailing in Naples this season, but Raspadori is one of the players to have emerged with credit from 2023/24 so far, scoring three goals in five games as a striker for the Partenopei while Osimhen has been out, and keeping Giovanni Simeone out of the team.
Raspadori has shown in Euro 2024 qualifying, in Serie A and in the Champions League that he is an elite striker – even if not a ‘natural’ one – and his versatility should be seen as another string to his bow rather than a reason to doubt his credentials.
Whether Italy get the job done on Monday or not – and Azzurri fans will be praying to avoid more play-off tribulations – it’s high time for a bit of certainty.
It’s time to crown Raspadori as the winner of this four-man audition for Italy’s centre-forward spot, so the team can hopefully head into Euro 2024 looking more settled.