Italy, of course, would go on to win the tournament at England’s expense and that brotherhood between Mancini and Vialli had been one of the cornerstones of the spirit behind the Azzurri’s rebirth following their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
At Palermo’s Renzo Barbera Stadium on Thursday night, the contrast could not have been more stark. Alone, his back turned to the pitch where Aleksandar Trajkovski’s stoppage-time winner had just earned North Macedonia one of the most famous victories in their history, Mancini dug his hands deep into the pockets of his designer suit and sloped off, head bowed, between the two stands that towered above him to the dressing rooms.
From euphoric, cathartic high to shuddering, sobering low in less than nine months, Mancini and Italy may take some time to fully come to terms with the fact that, for the first time, the country has missed out on a second World Cup in a row.
How have the reigning European champions ended up back on the outside looking in?
The truth may not be too much more complex than an alarming inability to take more of the plethora of chances they create. That, and the absence of a ruthless centre-forward, or at least one who is able to consistently replicate his club form at international level, which is the enduring question mark that hangs over Lazio’s Ciro Immobile.
Defeat in Sicily was only Italy’s second loss in 42 matches, a record that does not point to the sort of deeper failings and problems that were evident four years ago when Mancini was tasked with revigorating the national team in the wake of what the country’s leading sports newspaper, La Gazzetta dello Sport, described as “the apocalypse”.
Yet there is little doubt that against North Macedonia, when Italy had nothing to show for 32 shots, Mancini had still to find a way of addressing the wastefulness that forced them into the play-offs.
Italy drew four of their final five Group C games to finish two points behind Switzerland. Against Bulgaria in Florence, Italy had 26 shots but drew 1-1. Three days later Domenico Berardi missed a one-on-one and Jorginho had a penalty saved during a goalless draw in Switzerland. Jorginho then missed another penalty against Switzerland in November as Italy were held 1-1 and already it looked like all those missed opportunities could come back to bite Mancini and his players. Northern Ireland then took advantage of a team suffering an apparent crisis of confidence to emerge with a 0-0 draw at Windsor Park.
Interestingly, Immobile – who had again felt the full force of the critics after he was substituted before the hour mark of the Bulgaria game in September – missed those final two group games through injury.
Italy’s latest heartache may not be solely a product of their profligacy, though. Was there a hangover post- Euros? Did they grow complacent? How much of a loss was Leonardo Spinazzola, the marauding left-back who ruptured his Achilles in the quarter-finals against Belgium?
Some Italian commentators have felt Mancini was too loyal to the heroes of last summer. Lorenzo Insigne’s form has been erratic and Nicolo Barella has been lucky to hold down a place.
Italy’s resurgence under Mancini had been born, in part, out of his willingness to discard some of the old guard and promote youth or those who have previously been overlooked, but there were signs he had backed away from that stance. Might the likes of Sassuolo pair Gianluca Scamacca (23) and Giacomo Raspadori (22) or the Roma duo of Lorenzo Pellegrini (25) and Nicolo Zaniolo (22) have featured more?
Equally, did the memory of missing out on Russia somehow play its part against North Macedonia? After all, nine of the current Italian squad had lived through that experience.
With the likes of Federico Chiesa, whose absence through injury against North Macedonia was keenly felt, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, Inter centre-back Alessandro Bastoni and AC Milan midfielder Sandro Tonali, there are foundations to rebuild with confidence.
Yet they need a dependable goalscorer. Immobile, 32, is the top scorer in Serie A this season with 21 goals, but his record of 15 goals in 55 appearances for his country is underwhelming. Giorgio Chiellini, 37, and Leonardo Bonucci, 34 - who shouted “It’s coming Rome!” into a TV camera after the penalty shoot-out win in the Euro 2020 final – are in the twilight of their careers.
Scrutiny also turns to the future of Mancini. Gabriele Gravina, the president of the Italian Football Federation, has backed him to continue but, at 57, the former Manchester City manager would like another crack at club football. For the moment, Mancini, like the rest of Italy, can only reflect on another profound disappointment for a proud footballing nation. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)