ROME • Five years on from their last major tournament appearance, Italy take centre stage once more when they welcome Turkey to the Stadio Olimpico for the opening game of Euro 2020 today.
The Azzurri's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was a national sporting tragedy for the four-time world champions.
But manager Roberto Mancini has since built an attractive, exuberant side who head into the tournament with ambitions of reaching the July 11 final at Wembley, following the heartbreak of a penalty shoot-out defeat by Germany in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.
Anticipation has risen rapidly among the Italy faithful and understandably so. They are unbeaten in 27 games - their last defeat was in September 2018 - and their steady improvement was underlined by last week's 4-0 win over the Czech Republic, who are in Group D, in their final friendly.
Key midfielder Marco Verratti will not be available for the Turkey clash due to a knee injury but he hopes to be back in time for the second Group A game against Switzerland, with Sassuolo's Manuel Locatelli likely to start in his place.
Having three home games in front of around 16,000 fans will be a boost to Italian hopes, which are high inside and outside the training camp.
"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 group stage, we will have done worse than five years ago. To show we are stronger, we must at least get past the quarter-finals."
But today's opponents will be no pushovers, having impressed in qualifying, and they also have the players to contend with some of the continent's giants.
Turkey took four points from two games against world champions France in the Euro qualifiers, defeated the Netherlands 4-2 in a 2022 World Cup qualifier and earned 3-3 friendly draws with Germany and Croatia.
Contrary to what those goal-filled games suggest, their biggest strength is a miserly defence that conceded three goals in 10 Euro qualifiers, marshalled by centre-backs Caglar Soyuncu of Leicester and Juventus' Merih Demiral.
Manager Senol Gunes led Turkey to a superb third-place finish at the 2002 World Cup and any hopes of achieving a similar feat this summer could depend on continuing that solidity.
But there are threats at the other end of the pitch, too. AC Milan playmaker Hakan Calhanoglu will be more than familiar with his opponents, while 35-year-old striker Burak Yilmaz fired 16 goals in 28 games to lead Lille to the Ligue 1 title alongside national teammates Zeki Celik and Yusuf Yazici.
Veteran Yilmaz's international form has been equally potent, with five goals in four matches this year, and he is eager to cause a shock in what may be his last Euro.
Games unbeaten for Italy. The last time they lost was in September 2018.
"Our main objective is the match against Italy," he said.
"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."
History favours the hosts, though. Italy have never lost to Turkey in 10 previous meetings in all competitions, winning seven and drawing three, and it is a run the home fans will hope - and expect - to continue as a new chapter begins for Mancini's men.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
TURKEY V ITALY
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