The Azzurri have fallen on tough times and heading into Euro 2016 without expectations may do the Italians a lot of good.
24th June, 2014. Uruguay edge out Italy one goal to nil in the Group Stage of the World Cup, sending the Azzurri home with their tails between their legs. The four-time winners were unceremoniously dumped out of the tournament at the same stage four years beforehand, thus igniting a disappointing spell at international level.
Italy’s history at the European Championships has been a frustrating yet rather interesting one. The Azzurri have managed to reach the final on three occasions, but have only triumphed once, when they were hosts in 1968. The interesting aspect about this edition of the tournament was however that only four teams competed. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, England and Italy themselves. Italy only had to play three matches in order to win the competition, with the first, against the Soviet Union, being decided by a coin toss. The final, against Yugoslavia, was a 1-1 draw after extra-time, so the tie was determined to be replayed two days later. Italy won this 2-0, their only win of the tournament, thus crowning them “European champions”.
In more modern times the competition isn’t quite so easy. Italy’s best performance since the new decade came in 2012, sandwiched between the two dreadful World Cup showings. A Cesare Prandelli led Italy side managed to reach the final of the European Championships, only to be brushed aside by a scintillating Spain team 4-0. Four years later a new face is in charge, hoping to replicate his predecessor’s accomplishment, but not necessarily needing to.
Antonio Conte’s Italy is not the same as Prandelli’s Italy. The former Juventus manager saw fit to do rid of long-time stalwart Andrea Pirlo in a bid to reshape his side around Marco Verratti. In the two years Conte has been in charge he has called up more than 60 players, signalling his intent to give his Italy a side a new look ahead of Euro 2016. Along with this, Conte has utilised multiple different formations since taking over, including the 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2 and 3-4-3.
However, injury has struck the side and the Azzurri will be missing not only Verratti, but also Claudio Marchisio. The two central midfielders would both certainly have started, which now leaves Conte with troubling decisions to make ahead of his side’s first game against Belgium on June 13th.
Since qualifying for Euro 2016 back in October, Italy have played six friendlies, losing two, drawing two and winning two. A mixed bag to say the least. Many have lamented the performances of Conte’s side since his appointment, despite the fact that in he went unbeaten in qualifying. A feat not even Germany could match.
The team Conte will most likely start against Belgium will be familiar, yet fresh. Built on the foundations of Juventus’ five time Scudetti winning defence, Italy will be a team strongest at the back. This however does not mean they are toothless up front.
Despite being mired in a generation lacking world class forwards, Italy fans do have grounds to be optimistic. The re-emergence of Stephan El Shaarawy alongside the rise in form of Lorenzo Insigne looks promising, although it is unlikely that we’ll see the two feature together too much in the coming fixtures. Conte much prefers Emanuele Giaccherini in his forward line, which is seen as a cause for concern by many Azzurri fans.
Up top Italy will have three out-and-out strikers to choose from: Simone Zaza, Ciro Immobile and Graziano Pellè, the latter being the likely first choice. Pellè may not be a striker that puts fear into the heart of defenders, but what he does bring is consistency. In his 13 games for the Azzurri Pellè has scored five times, giving him the best record out of any of the strikers Italy have at their disposal. Whilst he may not be a Vieri or a Del Piero, Pellè has quietly gone under the radar.
The subdued tones of Pellè’s success also match the mood surrounding the entire Italy squad. Drawn into a group including Belgium, Sweden and Ireland, Italy certainly don’t have the easiest run to the Round of 16 in the competition, but they also don’t have the toughest. Belgium are the biggest threat to the Azzurri, but an inexperienced Ireland side and defensively frail Sweden are there for the taking.
In Belgium, Italy will have their sternest test of the group stage, but a contest that they certainly shouldn’t be written off in. Marc Wilmots’ side are astonishingly strong up front, but a lack of tactical nous from the coach could be their downfall. In qualifying Belgium won their rather weak group, but failed to score against Wales both home and away, with the Welsh sitting in a back-five to shut them out. Considering the fact that Italy have arguably the best defence in the competition, it would unsurprising if we were to see something similar play out when the two teams face.
Italy face Sweden in their second game of the competition and meet a side lacking both depth and strength across the pitch. Up front of course will be the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimović, a player that Sweden’s entire game plan revolves around. Ibrahimović acts as both the first defender and the main goal-scoring threat, but when plan A hasn’t worked out his effectiveness tends to be diminished almost entirely. Sweden have very little to fall back on in terms of depth and will most likely play in a 4-4-2 with Ibrahimović’s striking partner coming in the form of Panathinaikos’ Marcus Berg, who has a stellar club record in Greece, but a less impressive record for the national team. At the back Sweden can be left open by their soft midfield and the pace, or lack thereof, of Andreas Granqvist could be an avenue to be exploited.
Up last is the Republic of Ireland, a hard-working team with more bluff than bite. Martin O’Neill has proved to be a more inspiring coach to his team than his predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni was, but has found consistency hard to come by. In qualifying the Irish took four points off of Germany, beating them at 1-0 at home and drawing 1-1 with them away, but immediately lost their next game away to Poland 2-1. Lacking a true goal scorer, it would be unsurprising to see the Irish struggle to break through Italy’s strong backline.
Due to the new system in place, the four best third-place teams will qualify for the Round of 16. This means that just eight teams will not qualify for the knockout phase of the tournament, which gives every team at least a feasible chance of getting through their group. However, although scraping through is not where Italy should be aiming, it gives Conte’s side an insurance that even if they don’t win their first two games for example, their chances are not totally blown.
Winning their group would mean Italy facing whichever team finished second in Group D, meaning one of Spain, Croatia, Turkey or the Czech Republic. Coming second would pit the Azzurri against the winner of Group F, which could be one of Portugal, Iceland, Austria or Hungary. Although strange, finishing second in their group wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to Italy. A draw against one of Portugal, Iceland, Austria or Hungary would be much kinder than any side in Group D, which has been widely labelled as this year’s “group of death”.
Realistically Italy can’t do worse than they have done in recent years. The pressure is off and expectations are at an all-time low, but optimism should be higher. Despite coming into the tournament in a hushed manner, Italy remained unbeaten during qualifying and drew a rather workable group.