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. In regards to the experienced AC Milan campaigner, he would be sacrificed at national team level for younger forces post-tournament, although Azzurri made sure not to close the door completely on the man who had turned 29 during the 1988 Euro. He’d informed Ancelotti that if he kept performing at a high level for his club side, he would still be in contention at international level.
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.