Rome, June 10: It seems appropriate that Italy, the first country in Europe that was overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, is hosting the opening game of the Euro 2020. Doesn't matter the year is 2021!
The biggest crowd to gather in Italy for a year and a half will witness an Azzurri squad aiming for the title play a Turkey team aiming to spring a surprise on Saturday (June 11) at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
"We''ve been waiting a year for this European Championship and we can't wait to experience hearing 15,000 people singing the national anthem," veteran Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci said. "Soccer with fans inside the stadium is a different sport."
After embarrassingly failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Italy won all 10 of its qualifying matches for Euro 2020 and enters on a 27-match unbeaten run.
Turkey took four points off France in qualifying, including a 2-0 win over the World Cup champions, and lost only one of its matches to finish second in its group.
"Being in this tournament and playing in the opening match makes us proud," Turkey coach Senol Günes said. "In every opening game there are surprises and I hope we can also spring one."
The matchup also features some political undertones after Italian Premier Mario Draghi labeled Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a "dictator" in April. Turkey summoned Italy's ambassador to protest, and a presidential spokesman demanded that Draghi retract his words. Draghi, however, did not issue a public apology or retraction.
Ticket-holders need to show one of three documents to enter the Stadio Olimpico: either a certificate from Italian health authorities showing they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, another document from Italian health authorities showing they have recovered from the coronavirus within six months, or a negative test result issued within 48 hours of kickoff.
While more than 2,000 tickets for the opening game were sold in Turkey, many of those fans are not expected to travel to the match.
Back to football, Italy has won its past eight matches without conceding a goal and has 20 clean sheets in 32 matches since Roberto Mancini took over as coach.
While record-setting goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon retired from international soccer after the failed World Cup qualification, Italy remains solid at the position with 22-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma now between the posts. Also, Bonucci and Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini form a strong and experienced pairing in central defense.
One of Turkey's main strengths is also its solidity at the back. It allowed only three goals in qualifying and managed to keep forwards Memphis Depay and Erling Haaland scoreless in recent World Cup qualifiers.
Both sides are also strong at center forward. Ciro Immobile won the European Golden Shoe award when he matched the Serie A record with 36 goals in 2019-20.
Burak Yilmaz is Turkey's second highest scorer of all time, with his 29 goals putting him behind only the retired Hakan Sukur (51 goals).
Head to Head
Total: 11 matches. Italy won: 8, Turkey: 0, Draw: 3.
India time: 12.30 AM IST (Saturday).
Live telecast: Sony Sports Networks
Live streaming: Sony LIV