A talented Turkey side, built mostly around young guns, will take on European veteran Italy in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on Friday to kick off the COVID-delayed Euro 2020.
After a hapless display in the Euro 2016 and missing the 2018 World Cup, Turkey will look to announce the arrival of a new generation of players, a majority of whom honed their skills in major European leagues, unlike their predecessors.
Under veteran coach Şenol Güneş this new-look Turkish side took four points from two games against world champions France in Euros qualifiers and has since beaten the Netherlands 4-2 in a World Cup qualifier and earned 3-3 friendly draws with Germany and Croatia.
Contrary to what those goal-filled games suggest, Turkey’s biggest strength is a defense that conceded only three goals in 10 Euros qualifiers, marshaled by center backs Çağlar Söyüncü of Leicester and Juventus' Merih Demiral.
Manager Güneş led Turkey to a superb third-place finish at the 2002 World Cup. Any hopes of achieving a similar feat this summer could depend on continuing that solidity.
There are threats at the other end of the pitch, too. AC Milan playmaker Hakan Çalhanoğlu will be more than familiar with his opponents in Rome.
Italy's defenders could have their work cut out against star forward Yılmaz.
'King Burak,' alongside national teammates Zeki Çelik and Yusuf Yazıcı, comes into the Euro fresh from leading Lille to its fourth league title in his first season in France. He was the top scorer for the club with 16 goals in 28 games.
The 35-year-old will be his team's main goal threat, having scored five goals in four matches with Turkey in 2021.
"Our main objective is the match against Italy," said Yılmaz, of a group that also includes Wales and Switzerland.
"We are playing better against the big teams. We have to win this game. We are not afraid of anyone on the pitch. We want to start the competition in the best possible way and take Turkey to the place they deserve.
"Our excellent results in the Euro qualifiers and the World Cup have raised a lot of expectations among our people.
"We are aware of this and we bear this responsibility."
The Azzurri's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was a national sporting tragedy for the four-time world champions.
However, manager Roberto Mancini has since built an attractive, exuberant side that comes into the tournament with ambitions of reaching the London final, five years on from the heartbreak of a penalty shoot-out defeat to Germany in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016.
Anticipation has risen rapidly on the peninsula, and understandably so: The side is unbeaten in 27 games, a run going back to September 2018, and its steady improvement was underlined by a 4-0 win over the Czech Republic in their final warm-up game.
Key midfielder Marco Verratti will miss out with a knee injury but hopes to be back in time for Italy's second game, against Switzerland. Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli is likely to start in his place.
"This Italy team has more quality than the 2016 team, but we have to prove that,” said defender Alessandro Florenzi.
"If we go out in the groups, we will have done worse than five years ago. To show we are stronger, we must at least get past the quarterfinals.”
History is on the hosts’ side too. Italy has never lost to Turkey in 10 previous meetings in all competitions, winning seven and drawing three.
Somehow, it seems appropriate that Italy, the first country in Europe that was overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, is hosting the opening game of the European Championship.
Even if Euro 2020 is kicking off in 2021.
A year after being postponed due to the pandemic, the 24-team tournament spread across 11 venues throughout Europe gets underway in front of an estimated 16,000 fans in a Stadio Olimpico at 25% capacity – the biggest crowd to gather in Italy for a year and a half.
“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. “Football with fans inside the stadium is a different sport.”
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.
Fans arriving at the stadium will have their body temperature measured by thermal scanners, and anyone with a fever or other coronavirus symptoms will be ushered to a quarantine area.
With history on the hosts’ side, Italy having never lost to Turkey in 10 previous meetings, the home fans will hope to continue as a new chapter begins for the Italian national team. However, against this young and resilient Turkish side that is hungry for international success, the match will anything but a walk in the park.
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