Mateo Retegui is latest on Italy’s striker merry-go-round – how long will he last?

Roberto Mancini called his old Lazio team-mate Juan Sebastian Veron, now vice-president of Argentinian club Estudiantes, to ask his opinion on Mateo Retegui. Mancini then sent his son Andrea to South America to see the striker play for Tigre from Buenos Aires and to get in touch with the family.

Since Retegui’s name first appeared in Italy’s squad for this week’s opening Euro 2024 qualifiers, the 23-year-old, whose great-grandfather was from Sicily, has come under scrutiny.

“He’s a classic centre-forward,” Mancini said. “I see a lot of you have compared him to Germany’s Denis” – aka The Tank, who used to appear where Italy lost 2-1 to England on Thursday; when he was a Napoli goalscorer from 2008 to 2010.

But Mancini went further.

It’s a particularly unusual approach in an industry where coaches avoid talking about individuals, let alone the kind of hyperbole seen on social media and those YouTube supercuts to aggressive Europop.

“He reminds me of Batistuta when he first came to Italy,” Mancini said. “I can remember those times.” It’s probably the best thing Mancini said after leaving the national team’s training base in Florence for the Napoli venue At that moment they felt like sacrilege and were met with disbelief.

If Retegui is real The Well how come Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni didn’t call him right? Will the new world champion be spoiled for choice to pick a player with 25 goals in Argentina’s top flight since the start of the 2022 season?

Or is it because Retegui is still playing in the Primera Division a month after turning 24? That’s far too long for some scouts without a move to Europe, although no sooner had Retegui landed in Italy than stories of Inter Milan keen to sign him began to surface.

Finally, Retegui’s strike partner at Tigre – where he is on loan from Boca Juniors, for whom he has played a total of eight minutes since signing in 2018 – is Facundo Colidio, a player on loan from Inter. They bought him a teenager but Colidio is now 23 too, which begs the question: if he’s not ready for Serie A, is Retegui closer?

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The parallels with Gabriel Batistuta may just have been Mancini’s way of instilling confidence in a kid who has been in Italy for three days and doesn’t speak the language, let alone know anyone.

As Retegui exited the sweaty concrete bowels of the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, he did so with a goal on his debut. He became the first player to do so since Bologna winger Riccardo Orsolini intervened in the 9-1 draw against Armenia in Palermo four and a half years ago. “Mancini told me to keep calm, attack the spaces and have fun,” Retegui said charmingly in Rioplatense Castilian.

It was an eye for the skeptics. But did he pass the eye test?

Retegui seemed understandably disoriented in the first half against England. His movement surprised his new teammates. The timing of his runs was off. Harry Maguire repeatedly stepped in front of him to win the ball and when Marco Verratti put it in play his touch allowed England defenders to recover and John Stones to block a shot.

Overall it was a sad first half performance from this Italy without Federico Chiesa. Mancini said goodbye to the 3-5-2 configuration adopted by Italy when they beat England in the Nations League in Milan last September and returned to the 4-3-3 that inspired their triumph over them in the Euro final was just over a year earlier.

It was an odd choice considering Mancini commented on the eve of the game how all the central defenders available to him in Serie A play in the back three. Some, like Atalanta’s Rafael Toloi, are used to playing man-to-man at their club rather than marking zones like Italy do.

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Other personnel decisions also caused shakes of the head. The play-off defeat by North Macedonia around this time last year, which ended Italy’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup, was to be a turning point as Mancini broke with much of the old generation and birthed a new one.

Mancini changed his formation from 3-5-2 to the 4-3-3 he used during the Euro 2020 triumph (Picture: Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images)

But he left Toloi’s 19-year-old club-mate Giorgio Scalvini on the bench last night and only brought on the electrifying Wilfried Gnonto, also 19, in the 70th minute. Two goals down after careless corner saves and a stray arm from Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Italy were fortunate that Jack Grealish didn’t score the third just before half-time.

Retegui said: “I tried to score in the first half.” But Italy couldn’t get a single shot on Jordan Pickford’s goal in those 45 minutes. There was a significant improvement after the break, not that it was enough to turn the game around and come back in scenes reminiscent of the EM final to win. “We started to push better,” Mancini said. “We didn’t do that well enough in the first half.”

Italy began to expand their game and play more effectively between the lines. Retegui’s goal was a fleeting reminder of her at her best; A recapture bounced straight back on a disorganized English defence, with Nicolo Barella, Verratti and Lorenzo Pellegrini creating a combination that had incisive impact.

Pellegrini’s back pass to Retegui was one of the few moments of real quality from Italy that night, briefly silencing those who didn’t understand why the Roma captain started down the left flank via Gnonto while Mancini thought how it had happened in the past was that he would come into his more natural role as No.10 the more Leonardo Spinazzola bombed in attack.

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According to Mancini, Italy “dominated” from then on and had half an hour to find the equalizer. Luke Shaw’s red card with 10 minutes left had to be exploited. But Mancini waited too long, introducing Gianluca Scamacca and only going upstairs with two just before dying.

Looking back, RAI pundit Daniele Adani weighed in on the rawness of Retegui’s performance while appreciatively pointing out it took him just an hour to make his mark for Italy. “I’m very happy to have made my debut,” said Retegui, “but I’m sad about the defeat.”

Italy have lost to England on home soil for the first time since 1961. Regret? Italy should have a few, especially after that dismal first half. “We’re disappointed,” said Mancini, “but there’s still a long way to go.” Qualification from this group is not a matter of course for the defending champion. Ukraine’s pride will not be easy to resist, and Italy knows only too well what troubles North Macedonia can cause.

Retegui, on the other hand, takes time and patience. It feels like Mancini now has the responsibility of developing him. Last night’s competitive match ended any chance he would play for Argentina. “I’m proud to wear this jersey and represent this country,” he said. But every international break these days seems to bring a new striker experiment.

Towards the end of last year, it looked like Giacomo Raspadori might be the answer. Before that it was Scamacca. In between, Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti briefly promised to be Moise Kean and Fabio Quagliarella. There was even an international cap for Cagliari’s Brazilian-born goalscorer at the time, Joao Pedro.

The carousel keeps turning. The question is: who is next?

(Top Photo: Isabella Bonotto/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)


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