By Alasdair Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Manuel Locatelli timed his run into the Italy team almost as well as he timed his run for the Azzurri's opening goal against Switzerland on Wednesday.
The midfielder swept a volleyed pass out to the right wing to Domenico Berardi, before racing half the length of the pitch to get on the end of his Sassuolo team mate's cross and fire home.
Locatelli followed that up with a superb left-footed strike from the edge of the box in the second half to top off a night in which he announced himself to a global audience.
Of all the talented youngsters in Roberto Mancini's side, Locatelli has benefited most from Euro 2020 being postponed by a year.
The midfielder earned his first Italy cap in September last year, after the tournament was originally scheduled to take place.
He soon became a central part of Mancini’s plans as his international form matched the progression he was showing under Roberto De Zerbi for his club.
Since his debut, in a 1-0 Nations League win over the Netherlands, Locatelli has featured in 11 of Italy’s 13 games.
"The pandemic helped me a bit, then with work and determination I got here," Locatelli said after the game.
MAN FOR THE BIG OCCASION
Major tournaments tend to throw up unexpected heroes and Locatelli has already achieved that status with his brace against the Swiss.
His emotional reaction after the opener even earned comparisons with Marco Tardelli’s iconic 1982 World Cup final celebration.
It was unexpected mostly because Locatelli is not known for his goalscoring prowess, and this was the first brace of his career.
However, followers of Serie A will remember that he announced himself there in similarly emphatic fashion in October 2016, smashing in a superb winner against Juventus aged 18.
Locatelli, who won the 'star of the match' award, has now given Mancini a selection conundrum.
This Italy side lacks any obvious stars, but midfielder Marco Verratti might be the closest thing they have to one.
The Paris St Germain man has missed out thus far due to a knee injury, but hopes to be fit for the final Group A game against Wales on Sunday.
"We are a wonderful group and I really hope Marco can be back soon, because he is such a talented player who can make the difference," Locatelli said after the game.
Italy are through to the last 16 but will need at least a draw against the Welsh to secure top spot in Group A, making a wholesale rotation unlikely.
Locatelli has surely done enough to keep his spot, but there is no easy decision for Mancini, especially as Jorginho is irreplaceable as the midfield pivot.
Does he drop Nicolo Barella, who has been central to his Italy project for the last three years? Does he leave Verratti on the bench and bring him on later in the game?
As far as problems go for managers, it is a most welcome one for Mancini to have.
(Reporting by Alasdair Mackenzie; Editing by Christian Radnedge)