Italy will travel to Euro 2016 this summer among the darkhorses to go all the way, and although it is a position that belies the Azzurri’s rich tradition of being a dominant force on the international stage, it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Antonio Conte and his team.
The former Juventus manager, who is poised to step down at the end of the tournament to take over the reins at Chelsea, will view the upcoming European Championship as a great opportunity to prove that Italian football is on the rise once again following a decade in which England, Spain and Germany have led the way in terms of domestic league profile, spending power and success in European competitions. Conte is likely to opt for a combination of youth and experience at Euro 2016, although the Italian FA’s decision to follow Germany’s lead in placing considerable investment into youth systems across the country will reap considerable dividends for the future of Italian football at domestic and international level.
Although it will be down to a new manager to guide future generations of star players who pull on the famous Azzurri shirt, Conte will hope to bow out from international management with his head held high following a strong campaign that not only sets himself up well for the challenges that lay ahead in the Premier League, but also puts Italy back on the map following the hugely disappointing 2014 World Cup campaign which ended at the group stage following defeats against Uruguay and Costa Rica.
Italy have earned a staunch reputation for being one of the most difficult sides on the international stage to break down, with the defensive resilience and willingness to put bodies on the line for the cause a hallmark of what Italy have been all about over the years. This quality will certainly have to come to the fore after the draw was rather unkind to Conte, putting Italy in a potential “group of death” alongside Belgium, Ireland and Sweden.
It may explain why Bookies.com have installed Italy among the darkhorses for Euro 2016 rather than being one of the strong favourites, and with expectancy levels being lower than in previous years, it may allow the players to express themselves more without the pressure to succeed weighing on their shoulders. Lorenzo Insigne and Stephan El Shaarawy are two players in particular who have the ability and skill to make a real impact that Italy need in the final third, and if they are allowed to play with no fear, then both of Conte’s young stars could make a real name for themselves.
Writing off one of just three teams who came through their qualifying campaign without losing a single game (England and Austria being the others) would be rather unwise, particularly given Italy’s ability to deliver big performances during major tournaments. However, Conte will be under no illusions as to the difficult nature of the group that lies ahead for his team, particularly with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eden Hazard and Shane Long standing out as real threats to Italy’s chances of progressing from Group E. Using the disappointment of 2014 may be the motivation that Italy need to not only avoid making the same mistakes, but also come back even stronger and provide the foundations for future generations to take the national team forward.
This summer may prove to be the final European Championship swansong for Gianluigi Buffon who has been a wonderful servant for the Azzurri over the years. Very few would begrudge the 38-year-old of the opportunity to go all the way at Euro 2016 – an achievement which may present good value through a Paddy Power free bets offer that is covered on Bookies.com’s review – with Buffon likely to play a key role in France. He could be part of an all-Juventus rearguard if Conte stays true to his preference for three centre-backs, with Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli all in contention to start in their opening fixture against Belgium. They form the defensive framework which epitomises the hard work and organisation qualities that Italy must maintain throughout Euro 2016 if they are to have a chance of reaching the latter stages.
The big question marks that hangs over Italy is whether the vast experience and nous at the back can be match by the required flair and combative qualities further upfield, with Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti likely to be hugely missed at the heart of midfield. Antonio Candreva and El Shaarawy certainly bring a touch of flair and creativity, but although Conte will be pleased at the recent form of Insigne, his other options upfront (Eder, Pelle and Zaza) have endured limited time on the pitch this season.
Some would argue that Italy have lacked firepower upfront since the days of Roberto Baggio, Filippo Inzaghi and Christian Vieri, and although the likes of Domenico Berrardi and Sebastian Giovinco have been mentioned as players who could make a late push for a place in Conte’s 23-man squad, the Azzurri could go into Euro 2016 without a proven goal-scoring striker. It may come down to organisation, determination and discipline that are hallmarks of any Conte team to carry Italy forward this summer, and if the more advanced players can find a spark to compliment a rock-steady defence, then there is every chance that Italy could make a bigger impact than some may expect.