Italy seem to be writing themselves off before they’ve even kicked a ball. That is unusual but there have been plenty of distractions on and off the field in to suggest that the 1968 European Championship winners are unlikely to claim their second Euro crown in 2016.
The Panenka looks at why the Azzurri and everybody else are already calling Italy major outsiders while they prepare for Euro 2016 in France as Antonio Conte says he is ready to get the car out the garage and hit the road.
Italy and Antonio Conte head into Euro 2016 with numerous questions hanging over the team. Injuries have led to “difficulties’ for squad selection, the boss revealed he’d be leaving the national team after the tournament and to make the players have been labeled as inexperienced at international level. To make matters worse there appears to be very little belief in the Italy camp.
The Azzurri have been drawn into this tournaments group of death alongside Belgium, Republic of Ireland and Sweden. This has led to critics to question whether the Italians will even escape their group.
The Italians reached the final of the 2012 European Championship in Poland and Ukraine, losing to Spain. However, they went out of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil at the group stage. In the run-up to the tournament Antonio Conte announced that “it isn’t a good moment for our football.”
The defeatist attitude from the Italy camp is surprising, especially from Conte. “I am not a magician,” he said on the eve of revealing the final 23-man squad for the tournament.
Italy topped their qualification group to emerge in top spot from a tricky pool containing the likes of Croatia, Norway and Bulgaria. They finished undefeated with 7 wins and 3 draws.
The biggest blow to the Italy set up was the news that Antonio Conte will be saying farewell to the Italy team after the 2016 European Championship. In March it was announced that the Azzurri boss would be surrendering his position with Italy to attempt to resurrect the Chelsea’s fortunes in the English Premier League.
Conte originally took the national team position as a matter of national honor. However, the change of pace in international football compared to the week-in week-out drama of club football he experienced in a very successful spell with Juventus has not agreed with him.
“I’m very tired of spending so much time in the garage,” he said before two March friendlies in which Italy drew 1-1 with European Championship holders Spain and were beaten 4-1 by World Cup winners Germany. “In the garage, I smelt the smell of the machine, or rubber and motor oil, not the grass of the pitch.”
The Italian has ruled out his impending departure being a distraction in France. Conte cited his character and professionalism as proof that he will be able to focus on the task in hand at Euro 2016.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I work on things one at a time, and I try to deal with them in the best way. The Euros is the end of a two-year journey,” said the Azzurri boss.
“I want to tackle this tournament in the best way, knowing the difficulties which we didn’t expect to face. I always talk about work, we’ll try to work with our head down and try to do something great,” added Conte.
Antonio Conte is undoubtedly the best coach to take Italy into the tournament in France. However, the “difficulties’ he is referring to are in regards to the injuries that have derailed his first team plans. Both Marco Verratti of PSG and Claudio Marchisio of Juventus are out of the tournament, which has led to a reliance on the ageing 33-year-old Thiago Motta to partner Danielle De Rossi in midfield.
Gianluigi Buffon has been a pillar of the Italy setup for the best part of the last two decades. He recently declared that he still has another two years left in him and will retire after the 2018 World Cup. Prior to Euro 2016 even the Juventus stalwart admitted, “Italy are not favorites.”
A brief look over the squad and it is noticeable that there are some marked absentees. Most obvious is the fact that the experienced Andrea Pirlo was overlooked and it’s alarming to think that only three players from the 2006 World Cup winning squad have survived.
Conte is looking to turn the fact there is not one recognized star within the squad into a positive and is drawing on the power of the collective at Euro 2016. “You have to sacrifice yourself for the team,” said Conte. “The team isn’t a single element.”
“Obviously the more talent you have, the more chance you have of winning, but I want that talent to be put to use for the team. The team has always been the priority for me, I’ve never entrusted everything to a single player, no matter how good he was.”
Conte was largely maligned for his selection as he stuck with players who already have international experience rather than Serie A’s top performers from last season.
Eder and Simeone Zaza both got the nod ahead of Jorginho and Banaventura’s, the latter of which’s recent form has been arguably better. It is not surprising either that the former Juventus boss included six of his ex-players.
“The choices are made, we reflected a great deal and picked the best at out disposal. I have some pretty precise ideas,” said Conte after revealing his squad. The Italian’s plea to trust him though has fallen on some pretty deaf ears.
Italy’s defense, as usual, is solid. Despite the absence of Machisio, Verratti and Pirlo, the midfield is strong as long as it contains Thaigo Motta who boasts some of the best passing statistics in European football. It is the forwards that are causing controversy and question marks.
It was surprising to see that Italy opted to include five forwards in the squad but that appears be an example of quantity over quality. Conte is most likely to choose between Lorenzo Insigne of Napoli and Graziano Pelle of Southampton to lead the line in a 4-3-3.
Neither inspires particular confidence though. The Napoli forward spent much of the season playing second fiddle to Gonazalo Higuain while Pelle was a casualty to Southampton’s mid-season dip in form and found himself on the bench for the majority of the second half of the season.
Completing the attacking lineup is Ciro Immobile, Simone Zaza and Eder. The latter of which has only scored one goal since January while Immobile and Zaza netted five times apiece last season.
Insigne and Pelle both made it into double figures last season with 12 and 11 goals respectively. It is just sobering for Italy’s tournament chances to consider that there are players at Euro 2016 who have scored more goals than those two combined.
Bookmakers are pricing Italy at 16/1 to win the tournament, a fact that doesn’t inspire confidence. However, you can write Italy off at you peril but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Italy in and around the semi-final if they can make it out their group.