What can we expect from Italy at Euro 2016? The team that over-achieved by reaching the finals four years ago? Or the side that under-achieved by crashing out during the group stage of the last two World Cups? The Azzurri have a habit of taking a tournament by storm from out of nowhere, but they can also frustrate their fans with their baffling inconsistency when so much is expected of them. The Italians are a true world power in the sport, but too often they don’t play like it.
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Federico Marchetti (Lazio), Salvatore Sirigu (Paris Saint-Germain).
Defenders: Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham), Matteo Darmian (Manchester United), Mattia De Sciglio (AC Milan).
Midfielders: Federico Bernardeschi (Fiorentina), Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Stephan El Shaarawy (Roma), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), Emanuele Giaccherini (Bologna), Thiago Motta (Paris Saint-Germain), Marco Parolo (Lazio), Stefano Sturaro (Juventus).
Forwards: Eder (Inter Milan), Ciro Immobile (Torino), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli), Graziano Pelle (Southampton), Simone Zaza (Juventus).
Antonio Conte was a standout midfielder with Juventus from 1991 to 2004 who would have earned more than his 20 caps for his country had Italy not been flush with so many options at the time. After retiring he went into management, helping Bari and Siena win promotion to Serie A, before moving on to Juventus where he won three league titles. He took over as Italian national team manager in 2014, guiding the Azzurri through a successful qualifying campaign. He will step down after the tournament in France after already being hired as Chelsea’s next manager.
3-5-2: (GK) Buffon – (D) Chiellini, Bonucci, Barzagli – (M) De Sciglio, El Shaarawy, De Rossi, Candreva, Darmian – (F) Pelle, Eder
MORE ON EURO 2016: Sportsnet has you covered with in-depth coverage of Euro 2016 in France, which runs from June 10 to July 10.
GROUP B SCHEDULE
June 13: vs. Belgium in Lyon
June 17: vs. Sweden in Toulouse
June 22 vs. Ireland in Lille
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Italy came through the qualifiers without any bother, going unbeaten in 10 games (with seven wins) to beat out Croatia for first place by four points. The two teams battled to a pair of 1-1 draws, but that barely slowed down the Italians, who earned four clean sheets and clinched a berth with one game to spare.
What the Italians lack in flair they make up for in the core values preached by Conte: organization and work rate. The back four—Buffon, Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli—play together at Juventus, which gives Italy a huge defensive advantage. Conte is a coach who wears his heart on his sleeve and inspires his players to play above their heads.
Italy lacks creative and flair players who can open up defences. Conte’s decision to omit Sebastian Giovinco, as well as Leonardo Pavoletti and Andrea Belotti (among the two highest-scoring Italians in Serie A this season) was a head-scratcher. Injuries to Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, two of Italy’s top midfielders, badly hurt a team short on attacking inspiration.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Gianluigi Buffon: At 38, he’s still among the best goalkeepers on the planet. He has a wealth of experience—he’s Italy’s most capped player, and this will be his eighth major international tournament. A master at organizing his defence and making huge saves when called upon.
Leonardo Bonucci: The Juventus man is one of the best defenders in the world, capable of playing the middle as defensive quarterback or out wide. A tough and physical defender who also likes to go forward and get himself involved in the middle of the box on set pieces and corner kicks.
Antonio Candreva: A skilled and cultured midfielder who can go forward, or create dangerous scoring chances with his sublime distribution on the ground or from crosses from the right flank.
Will Antonio Conte regret not picking Sebastian Giovinco? With the exception of Lorenzo Insigne, this Italian roster doesn’t have someone like Giovinco—a dynamic attacker who can score goals, act as a playmaker, take defenders on, and create a bit of magic out of nothing. This side is heavy on traditional target men and centre-forwards; what it doesn’t have is a genuine game-breaker such as Giovinco.
PROSPECTS IN FRANCE
The Italians certainly have enough depth and quality to get out of the group. But beyond that? It’s hard to see them going on any kind of run in the knockout stages like they did four years ago. This is an offensively stagnant and stale side that lacks attacking inspiration. They’re far too slow and predictable in their buildup play; opposing teams should have little trouble shutting them down. They won’t get past the round of 16.
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