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After World Cup failure, Italy perfect in Euro 2020 run-up

ROME (AP) — Nearly two years after Italy's embarrassing failure to qualify for the World Cup, the Azzurri are back on track. With six straight wins to open European Championship qualifying, Roberto Mancini and his squad need only a victory in Rome against Greece next month to secure a spot at Euro 2020 and host the tournament's opening match at the same Stadio Olimpico.

"After the disappointment of the World Cup, we're bouncing back in style," Italy striker Ciro Immobile said after ending a two-year scoring drought with the national team in a 2-1 win over Finland on Sunday.

Despite missing several injured players — including captain Giorgio Chiellini and winger Lorenzo Insigne — Italy beat both Armenia and Finland away from home over the past week. Including a victory in a friendly over the United States last November, Italy has won seven straight matches overall — two shy of the Azzurri record of nine set under coach Vittorio Pozzo before World War II.

The last time Italy won seven straight came in 2003 under Giovanni Trapattoni. What's more is that the squad has scored 18 goals in its six qualifiers — more than any other team — and conceded only three. That's a sharp turnaround from World Cup qualifying and the Nations League, when Italy went 10 straight competitive matches where it failed to score more than a single goal.

The biggest changes have come in midfield, where younger players like Nicolò Barella, Stefano Sensi and Lorenzo Pellegrini have joined Marco Verratti and Jorginho to provide a core of expert passers. "With the passing quality we've got and the forwards we have, we know the goal will come sooner or later, so we don't worry," said Francesco Acerbi, the Lazio defender who did well filling in for Chiellini against Finland. "There are a lot of young players in the side, so at times we are a little naive, but we're doing very well considering how little time we get to train as a group."

Immobile, who has been a consistent scorer for Lazio in recent seasons, had contributed to the World Cup failure with his long drought for Italy. "It was weighing on me so much, not scoring with this shirt," he said. "So much has been said over the last two years, but I was calm and knew my moment would come."

With plenty of talent on the forward wings with Federico Chiesa, Federico Bernardeschi and Insigne, perhaps the biggest question for Mancini at this point is who to rely on at center forward — Immobile, Andrea Belotti, or perhaps even Mario Balotelli.

Belotti has been the top scorer in Europe this season with eight goals for club and country — including a pair in a 3-1 win over 10-man Armenia last week. But Mancini was the one who helped launch Balotelli's career at Inter Milan and appears intrigued by the mercurial striker's return to Serie A with Brescia.

"I hope he can see returning to his hometown as an opportunity to totally relaunch his career," Mancini said last week. "He is 29 years old and should be at his peak. A player of his quality cannot totally lose everything he showed over the years. It depends on him."

However, Balotelli's season has not started yet as he serves a four-match ban from a straight red card in his final game for Marseille in May. "If Mario scores 25 goals, presses opponents, works with the team and does everything that a 29-year-old should do, then I think he could have a chance for Italy," Mancini said. "However, it's important for him that he has a big season."

Mancini also coached Balotelli at Manchester City and included the forward in his first two Italy squads, giving him his first two call-ups since the 2014 World Cup, but the striker has not been recalled in a year.

Still, Balotelli has scored 14 goals in 36 appearances for the Azzurri — more than any other active Italy player.

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Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

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