Lorenzo Insigne's tournament started in sublime fashion, his splendid free-kick earning Italy victory against England on matchday one. However, next time out against Israel he suffered an ankle injury which threatened to end his involvement in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship. Now, though, little more than a week later, he is fit, raring to go and dreaming of lifting the trophy in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
"Initially I thought something was broken, it really hurt a lot and I couldn't walk," he told UEFA.com. "I didn't think I would make it back on the pitch, so I have to thank the medical staff. They kept me happy, telling me to stay calm and positive, and I played again just like they told me."
The SSC Napoli midfielder's return to action came in Saturday's 1-0 semi-final defeat of the Netherlands. That secured the five-time winners a place in a U21 decider for the first time since their most recent triumph, in 2004. "
It is a great feeling, especially when you think about all the sacrifices you have made up until now," added Insigne.
A midfield livewire who is currently sporting a shock of blond hair, Insigne missed just one Serie A game for Napoli last season and made his full international debut in FIFA World Cup qualifying last September. Though he had the chance to join Cesare Prandelli's side at this month's FIFA Confederations Cup, he is glad to have opted for Israel.
"Definitely, it makes you grow and leads you towards the A team," he explained. "I decided along with the coach that playing here would be better for my development. I am very happy I have come here with my friends and made it to the final. We have invested a lot of work to make it this far, so thanks to [former coach Ciro] Ferrara and to our current coach. The strength of this team is not any individual player but the whole team, all 23 players, and we always feel united."
Ferrara's successor Devis Mangia has placed great faith in Insigne, allowing him the freedom to express himself on the pitch. However, he is not the only one that influenced the 22-year-old ahead of this tournament. "I have had a great relationship with the coach since the first day," said the Naples-born attacker. "He is somebody who talks clearly and tells you what he thinks. He is a great coach and a nice man. He always tells me to play like I can and tells me: 'You are strong and you have talent. Don't think about anyone, just think about what I tell you.'
"Before we left, my whole family, my wife, my parents told me to go there, stay happy, show what you are capable of, and always play with a smile on your face. You need to have a smile on your face when you go on the pitch, because football is just the nicest thing there is. So I enter the pitch with a smile and try to enjoy myself."
That enjoyment will reach new heights should Mangia's team beat the holders at Teddy Stadium on Tuesday evening. Insigne, who picked out Málaga CF midfielder Isco as Spain's biggest threat, says Italy "don't have a problem if everybody sees the Spanish as favourites". Indeed Julen Lopetegui's charges are a tough nut to crack, having negotiated their first four matches without conceding. If the story behind him being handed the No10 shirt is anything to go by, Insigne's team-mates will be hoping he is the man to finally breach David de Gea's defensive wall.
"When we allocated the shirt numbers, we first went by order of caps, but when No10 came up the whole team voted to give it to me – they have all shown me great faith," he said. "They have trusted me, giving me the No10, and I hope that I have paid them back with my performances."
By his own admission, Insigne is a player who gets "nervous pretty fast" before a game. Although that anxiety is likely to be at an all-time high in Jerusalem, visions of victory should be settling enough. "It would be a wonderful feeling to lift the trophy," said Insigne. "I hope everything goes well and we can lift the trophy so we don't have to watch the others with it. That would be horrible."
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