As host nation, Italy were automatically qualified for the 1990 World Cup. Thus, whilst the other European teams embarked on their qualification campaigns, manager Azeglio Vicini had the relative comfort of going through a schedule of friendlies, preparing his team for the World Cup tournament on home soil.

In the 1988 European Championships, Italy had exited at the penultimate hurdle, losing 2-0 to the Soviet Union in the semi-finals. Vicini had displayed high consistency in his team selection, with the same starting eleven on display for all four of their matches. In fact, even the two same substitutes would appear every time, so only 13 out of their 20 man strong squad had appeared during the finals. 

Vicini had lined his charges up in a 3-5-2 formation during the tournament in West Germany. Walter Zenga, third choice for the goalkeepers’ position back in Mexico ’86, was by now a natural first pick, and he would be surrounded by Milanese men just ahead of him: Internazionale team mates Giuseppe Bergomi and Riccardo Ferri in marking central defensive capacities, and with AC Milan’s stylish libero Franco Baresi acting as their spare man. 

The five man strong midfield department had been made up by Roberto Donadoni, Fernando De Napoli, Giuseppe Giannini, Carlo Ancelotti and teenage sensation Paolo Maldini. Their inner-core threesome, De Napoli, Giannini and Ancelotti, usually saw two sit back whilst one would be allowed forward, and with De Napoli rarely venturing deep into the opposition’s territory, it would be either of Roma’s Giannini or Milan’s Ancelotti to provide an attacking threat. The two obviously had differing approaches, with Giannini offering creativity on the ball, whilst Ancelotti was more prone to providing off-the-ball runs. 

With De Napoli offering defensive stability from his inside right position, wide right man Donadoni could more often be thrust ahead along his flank, whilst Maldini along the left didn’t have an identical alibi inside of him, meaning he enjoyed much less attacking freedom than Donadoni. This appeared to suit Maldini just fine, as he was far from the finished article in coming forward. Defensively, despite his tender age, he seemed sound. 

Sampdoria pair Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli were Vicini’s front two. They obviously knew each other very well, but were still very dependent of assistance from midfield. Italy would rarely risk losing their defensive shape in committing too many men forward at the same time, and so they had rarely looked too adventurous. Yet there had been a solidity about their 1988 outlook, and for the coming months ahead of the 1990 World Cup, it would be up to Vicini and his team to develope their attacking phase to a greater extent, whilst at the same time keeping that solidity at the back. Interesting times were ahead as gli Azzurri were looking to embark on a tour of the nation for the rest of ’88 and throughout ’89. 

Match reports and analyses

Italy in the 1988 Olympic football tournament

Friendly: Italy 2-1 Norway
19.10.1988, Stadio Adriatico (Pescara)
Goals: Giannini (pen.), Ferri
Line-up (3-5-2): Zenga – Bergomi (c) (Ferrara h-t), Baresi, Ferri – De Napoli, Donadoni (De Agostini 36), Giannini, Berti, Maldini – Vialli, Mancini (Rizzitelli 77)
A familiar-looking Italy struggle to get going, and they need a penalty and a thunderbolt free-kick to secure a narrow win against plucky visitors. Three players from the Olympic semi-finalist team were brought on during the game.

Friendly: Italy 1-0 Netherlands
16.11.1988, Stadio Olimpico (Rome)
Goal: Vialli
Line-up (3-5-2): Tacconi – Bergomi (c), Baresi, Ferri – Rizzitelli (Ferrara 53), De Napoli, Giannini, De Agostini (Berti 82), Maldini – Vialli, Baggio
This was far from a vintage Italy performance, and they owed largely to stand-in ‘keeper Tacconi and the forward duo their win. The former had got a rare opportunity to impress against a much-changed Dutch outfit, which included three starting debutants, and he’d done his own cause no harm whatsoever with three fine first-half stops. The front two had conjured up the winning goal just before the break. Italy, who had struggled to contain lively winger Huistra in the first half, had had better control defensively in the second half, but they’d failed to impress, at least based on possession alone. 

Friendly: Italy 2-0 Scotland
22.12.1988, Stadio Renato Curi (Perugia)
Goals: Giannini (pen.), Berti
Line-up (3-5-2): Zenga (Tacconi 51) – Bergomi (c) (Ferrara 51), Baresi, Ferri – Crippa, Berti, Giannini, Marocchi, Maldini – Vialli, Serena
Italy claimed their third successive post European Championships win, as they without too much effort brushed aside a disappointing Scottish outfit that never put up a great fight. A twice-taken penalty from Giannini and a headed effort from Berti were the goals, and Italy displayed defensive security throughout. Sound debuts for midfield men Marocchi, their most defensive in that department on the day, and Crippa, who played wide to the right in De Napoli’s absence. Serena a thorn in the Scottish side all afternoon.

Friendly: Italy 1-0 Denmark
22.02.1989, Stadio Arena Garibaldi (Pisa)
Goal: Bergomi
Line-up (3-5-2): Zenga – Bergomi (c), Baresi, Ferri (Ferrara h-t) – Donadoni (Crippa 68), De Napoli, Giannini, Berti, Maldini – Vialli (Borgonovo 75), Serena
Vicini had restored to the line-up both Donadoni and De Napoli, and he continued with three at the back. Giannini enjoyed plenty of attacking freedom in his advanced role, something which he seemed to relish. Italy were quite dominant, although they did not do sufficiently with their amount of possession. Their two forwards were well marshalled by the Danish defence, and Schmeichel proved a major obstacle when Berti got played in on goal. Bergomi got the decisive goal with an hour on the clock, and gli Azzurri saw the game out without exerting themselves as an attacking force, with Vicini clearly having had a wish to see how strong their defensive mettle was. It was rarely tested by below par visitors.

Friendly: Austria 0-1 Italy
25.03.1989, Praterstadion (Vienna)
Goal: Berti
Line-up (3-5-2): Zenga – Bergomi (c), Baresi, Ferri – Donadoni, De Napoli, Giannini, Berti, Maldini (De Agostini h-t) – Vialli, Serena (Borgonovo 22)
Italy might have been away from home, but they were the dominant side in possession, and only for spells let the hosts maintain the ball. Despite their first half superiority, they did need Zenga to save three times after two efforts from distance by Zsak and a trademark shot by Polster, and the ‘keeper also saved comfortably a second half volley from substitute Rodax. Italy, who needed to make an early striker’s change when Serena picked up a knock, had a first half ‘goal’ from Borgonovo disallowed for offside. Berti had several runs into the area, and got his reward two minutes from time with a header which went in off the groun from De Agostini’s delightfully flighted cross

Friendly: Romania 1-0 Italy
29.03.1989, Stadionul Municipal (Sibiu)
Line-up (4-4-2): Zenga – Bergomi (c) (Marocchi 52), Baresi, Ferri (Maldini 39), Ferrara – Donadoni (Baggio 65), Giannini, De Napoli, Berti – Vialli, Borgonovo
Despite a double woodwork hit in the second half, Italy are somewhat short of creativity. Vicini tried out a couple of different formations (4-4-2/3-5-2), and will not have been too impressed with Borgonovo (?).

Friendly: Italy 1-1 Uruguay
22.04.1989, Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi (Verona)
Goal: Baggio
Line-up (4-4-2): Zenga (Tacconi h-t) – Bergomi (c), Baresi, Ferri, De Agostini – Giannini, Marocchi, Berti, Baggio – Vialli (Carnevale 41), Serena
It will have been a worry that Italy were struggling to unlock their opponents for a second successive match; for the goal they had to rely on Baggio’s individual brilliance. And can they make it all the way in the World Cup without carrying a counter-attacking threat?

Friendly: Italy 4-0 Hungary
26.04.1989, Stadio Erasmo Iacovone (Taranto)
Goals: Vialli, Ferri, Berti, Carnevale
Line-up (4-4-2): Zenga – Ferrara, Baresi, Ferri, Maldini (Bergomi 78) – Donadoni, Giannini (Fusi 73), De Napoli, Berti – Vialli (c) (Serena h-t), Carnevale
The hosts carried way too much quality for a non-cohesive Hungarian unit, and Italy had some truly stand-out performers in midfielders Donadoni and Giannini, as well as striker Carnevale, who made his full debut and capped it with a goal. Italy did allow the visitors a couple of crossbar hits late on, but were simply too dominant and powerful for Hungary to cope with.

Friendly: Italy 4-0 Bulgaria
20.09.1989, Stadio Dino Manuzzi (Cesena)
Goals: Baggio 2 (1 pen), Carnevale, Vialli
Line-up (4-4-2): Zenga – Bergomi (c) (Ferrara 76), Baresi, Ferri, Maldini (De Agostini 61) – De Napoli, Marocchi (Crippa 68), Giannini, Baggio – Vialli, Carnevale
Italy survive early scare as Stoichkov strike inside of post, but come good and eventually win comfortably. Baggio truly standing out, having a hand in all of the four goals.

Friendly: Italy 0-1 Brazil
14.10.1989, Stadio Renato Dall’Ara (Bologna)
Line-up (3-5-2): Zenga – Bergomi (c), Baresi, Ferri (Ferrara h-t) – De Napoli, Berti, Giannini (Fusi 60), Baggio, De Agostini – Vialli, Carnevale
Italy succumb to late wonder-strike from substitute André Cruz in full-blooded and prestigeous encounter.

Friendly: Italy 1-0 Algeria
11.11.1989, Stadio Romeo Menti (Vicenza)
Goal: Serena
Line-up (4-4-2): Zenga – Bergomi (c) (Ferrara h-t), Baresi, Ferri, De Agostini – De Napoli (Donadoni 51), Giannini, Marocchi, Baggio – Vialli, Carnevale (Serena 71)
Italy dominant from start to finish, but El-Hadi makes some fine saves to keep Algeria in the game for 70 minutes.

Friendly: England 0-0 Italy
15.11.1989, Wembley (London)
Line-up (3-5-2): Zenga – Bergomi (c), Baresi, Ferri – De Napoli, Donadoni, Giannini, Berti, Maldini – Vialli (Baggio 83), Carnevale (Serena 71)
Italy were played deep by determined and physical opponents, and though Carnevale was unlucky to have a good first half goal ruled out for offside, Vicini could by far be the happier of the two managers about the outcome. The 3-5-2 did not seem to bring the best out of Italy, who never managed a single effort on target.

Friendly: Italy 0-0 Argentina
21.12.1989, Stadio Sant’ Elia (Cagliari)
Line-up (3-5-2): Zenga (Tacconi h-t) – Bergomi (c), Baresi, Ferrara – De Napoli, Donadoni (Mancini h-t), Giannini, Berti, Maldini (De Agostini h-t) – Vialli (Fusi 69), Serena
Very hard-fought game in which few chances were created by either team. Ferrara in for Ferri, no Baggio anywhere to be seen, and Carnevale had been replaced by Serena in the striker’s position. Teams nullified the threat from one another.

21.02.1990 Netherlands 0-0 Italy

31.03.1990 Switzerland 0-1 Italy

Appearance tables

PlayerNor NedScoDenAutRomUruHunBulBraAlgEngAppsMins
De Agostini54824590299090
De Napoli90909090909090905190