After a disastrous World Cup campaign that saw the Azzurri eliminated at the group stage – just as they were in South Africa four years previously – Italy needed to shake things up. And there was no better man to reboot a squad that still featured several of the 2006 vintage than Antonio Conte.
The former Juventus manager hasn’t been afraid to make some tough but important decisions. The 23-year-old Marco Verratti is acting as the new Andrea Pirlo, with the veteran himself starting only three qualifiers, while Southampton’s Graziano Pelle has been tasked with restarting the Italian tradition of No.9s, having received his first call-up aged 29.
In under two years as Azzurri coach Conte has called up more than 60 players, which suggests he has been keen to run the rule over every man at his disposal in an attempt to find his best team. And it’s not just in personnel that he is leaving no stone unturned in his quest for a winning formula. Conte has played with 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 formations since taking over in August 2014.
The qualifying campaign was a series of contradictions: unbeaten but unconvincing, comfortable but cumbersome. Italy dropped points in only three games, drawing twice with Croatia either side of a stalemate in Sofia, but they rarely romped to victory in what was ultimately a weak group. Conte wouldn’t have been too content with two 1-0 wins over Malta.
Pirlo has made reference to the beast within his former boss at Juve, which explains why Conte demands players who like to listen in his dressing room, rather than talk back. That means no Mario Balotelli and no Antonio Cassano – he wants players that will follow him in any way necessary.
After Euro 2016, Conte will leave the national team for Chelsea. This raises the most important question: how will he manage Italy knowing that in a few weeks he will no longer be the Azzurri coach? “I can assure all Italians that we will be a team,” he has promised. Perhaps – but will they be any good?
Lesson from qualifying
Conte’s side scored only 16 times in 10 qualifiers. Finding another attacking gear is crucial, particularly in a tight group that could come down to goal difference.
As always, Italy’s defence is one of the best not only in Europe but across the globe. Gigi Buffon is still one of the world’s most reliable goalkeepers, while Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli are among the best defenders in Serie A. That they all play together at Juventus only aids their cohesion with the national team.
Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo, Sweden have Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Belgium have a wealth of talent going forward. Italy’s attacking options, though, don’t set pulses racing. It’s a good thing Conte knows how to mould a team without big stars.
Most likely to...
Be watched by Premier League managers. With Conte heading for Stamford Bridge once the tournament is over, his new foes in the dugout will be keen to get the inside track on his tactical masterplan.
Least likely to...
Be watched by Mario Balotelli. The striker said in December that he couldn’t wait for Euro 2016, a statement met with derision by Conte, who has capped the 25-year-old only once. Conte scoffed: “He can’t wait for what? To watch on television?” FFT has a feeling Super Mario may find more bonkers things to do with his summer.
What they hope will happen
A march through to the semi-finals would be a great achievement with a ‘new’ team and a fine way for Conte to show Chelsea supporters exactly what he can offer them. Hey, it’s better than being knocked out at the group stage by Costa Rica…
What will happen
Group E is one of Euro 2016’s toughest, and while Italy’s defence can keep the very best teams quiet, their lack of attacking threat – not to mention the distraction brought about by Conte’s imminent departure to London – will likely see them fail to make it much further than the first knockout round.
Key player - Gianluigi Buffon
The Juventus and Italy captain recently broke a 22-year-old Serie A record by going 973 minutes without conceding. He thanked his team-mates for their help, so it’s handy for him that Italy can call on the same backline.
Manager - Antonio Conte
“I find it hard to stay in the garage: you get the scent of the car, the tyres, the engine oil, but not the pitch.” Before he takes over at Chelsea, though, Conte has one more job as mechanic: hitting the road to France.
Q&A - Alessandro Florenzi
How do you view Italy’s chances at Euro 2016?
There are many strong teams, but I think we’ll be able to hold our own. We have people in the squad who have played in three World Cups and they will give us their experience, while we bring our young freshness and try to learn what they teach us.
How are you approaching your first tournament?
With peace of mind. It’s an important, difficult tournament, but we must face it without fear and bring our fans joy.
How would you describe Antonio Conte? What can Chelsea fans expect once he joins them after Euro 2016?
He leaves nothing to chance. For him, one play can change the game – a well-studied corner is a weapon. He will definitely do well in England. It doesn’t change much for us that he’s leaving at the end of this tournament, because we know what he’s like: he’ll want to give 150 per cent for Italy to convince the sceptics. We all know from when he was a player that he does not let up.
What do you think of the group that Italy are in? Are you looking forward to playing against your Roma team-mate Radja Nainggolan in the Belgium match?
Radja and I are good friends and we often have a joke – they beat us last time, but we played very well. Belgium are a great team who aspire to the title. In recent years their players have become scary – really strong. Sweden and the Republic of Ireland are also two tough opponents. They don’t give you a centimetre; they’re always ready to press. And Sweden have Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who’s one of the top players in the world, with Messi and Ronaldo.
Which players inspire you?
As a child, when I played only as a midfielder, I tried to imitate Cesc Fabregas. When we played Spain recently, I met him and was able to fulfil a little dream. When I told him that was he was my idol, he said: “You were born in 1991! How can I be your idol?” But I told him that when I was 18 he had already been playing at a high level for years. He was a very nice person.
Fixtures and results
June 14, Belgium - Lyon, 3am
June 17, Sweden - Toulouse, 9pm
June 23, Rep. Ireland - Lille, 3am
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Group H winners
vs Norway (A) 2-0
vs Azerbaijan (H) 2-1
vs Malta (A) 1-0
vs Croatia (H) 1-1
vs Bulgaria (A) 2-2
vs Croatia (A) 1-1
vs Malta (H) 1-0
vs Bulgaria (H) 1-0
vs Azerbaijan (A) 3-1
vs Norway (H) 2-1
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
1996 Group stage
2004 Group stage
Words: Alberto Santi; Interview: Emanuele Giulianelli
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