Italy are European champions and on a long unbeaten streak but should be even better by the time of the 2022 World Cup, according to former forward Gianfranco Zola.
The Azzurri have been transformed under Roberto Mancini since missing out on qualifying for the previous finals in Russia.
Mancini’s men won the Euro 2020 final against England on penalties and are now undefeated in 34 matches, the longest run in the team’s history.
However, Zola – who earned 35 caps and scored 10 goals between 1991 and 1997 – sees an even brighter future for Italian football.
Despite including 34-year-old Leonardo Bonucci (the oldest scorer in Euros final history) and 36-year-old captain Giorgio Chiellini (the third-oldest player in final history), Italy named only the 12th-oldest squad at the tournament.
“To get into Mancini’s shoes and give him hints on how to improve this team is out of question and risky,” Chelsea great Zola told Stats Perform.
“As it is, this squad will be even more competitive in the World Cup.
“They will grow in confidence and improve even further because most of the players are young. To me, they will get to an even higher level.”
An already impressive Azzurri midfield could also be boosted by the return from injury of Nicolo Zaniolo, the 22-year-old who has not played since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in action against the Netherlands in September 2020.
That was the Roma man’s second ACL tear in eight months – having suffered the same injury to his right knee – and checked the progress of a promising career.
In 69 appearances for Roma, Zaniolo has scored 14 goals and laid on six assists from 55 chances created. He has also netted twice in seven senior caps at international level.
“Then [in 2022] some players like Zaniolo will be available,” Zola added. “If his injuries [have been] absorbed, he will be an important player to give the contribution needed to make this squad even better
“And, to me, some other youngsters will shine, because the long wave of enthusiasm given by this trophy will make many youngsters step up.
“Italy will be competitive at the World Cup – no hints needed for Mancini.”
But Zola also anticipates another challenge from beaten Euro 2020 opponents England, who reached their first major tournament final in 55 years.
The average age of the Three Lions’ line-up for the final (26y 328d) was almost two years younger than Italy’s (28y 272d) and they also have room to grow.
“It is an extremely young and talented squad,” Zola said. “England can only grow and this defeat won’t be a problem.
“England, like Italy and Spain, boast many young lads with such room to improve. Let’s not forget that England often kept out players like [Jadon] Sancho, [Marcus] Rashford and [Phil] Foden that are very important.
“I would be surprised if England weren’t a team to beat in Qatar. They have a bright future.”