Blog Written by Sebastian Fazio (@CalcioASRoma):
Antonio Conte and Italy go into the European Championship facing an unfamiliar situation, a situation in which they aren't considered among the favourites for the Euro. They go into France considered underdogs and a dark horse, and that's exactly what they'll be.
Despite the criticism for Antonio Conte, the Italian coach went undefeated in qualifying and finished top of the group with teams like Croatia and Norway in it. It all started in September of 2014, where Conte won his competitive debut 2-0 vs. Norway with goals from Leonardo Bonucci and new boy Simone Zaza. Italy would go onto win their next 2 matches starting off the Conte era with a perfect 3-0-0 (W-D-L) record. Italy then tied Croatia in Milano, which was then followed with two more draws. But Italy never caved; instead, they went on to win their remaining 4 games to book themselves a place in France in fashion by topping the group without loosing a game.
Euro Team Selection & Possible Formations
Italy's 23-man squad;
Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus), Federico Marchetti (Lazio), Salvatore Sirigu (PSG) Mattia De Sciglio (Milan), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus), Matteo Darmian (Manchester United), Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham), Andrea Barzagli (Juventus), Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus) Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), Tiago Motta (PSG), Stefano Sturaro (Juventus), Daniele De Rossi (Roma), Marco Parolo (Lazio), Federico Bernadeschi (Fiorentina), Stephan El Shaarwy (Roma), Emanuele Giaccherini (Bologna) Simone Zaza (Juventus), Graziano Pelle (Southampton), Ciro Immobile (Torino), Eder (Inter), Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli)
As you can see, this Italian squad lacks some talent compared to teams in the past. Conte's decision to leave out guys like Sebastian Giovinco, Andrea Belotti, Franco Vazquez and Domenico Berardi shocked many. Going along with the injuries to Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti makes things even harder for Gli Azzurri. Though this team doesn't have tons of talent, it is being built like a true Antonio Conte side. The former Juventus manager picked players who will fit his system, players he trusts. Though it's understandable, the criticism he's gotten is somewhat undeserved, as the ball hasn't even been kicked yet. Shocking decisions? Yes, but everyone would do something different. Every coach has different methods and this team is the squad Conte trusts, and the team he believes will follow his instructions best to bring him results.
It is expected Conte will play with his beloved 3-5-2 formation. Very fitting considering the Juve defense he has available to him, the backline he created with The Old Lady. Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bouncci and Giorgio Chiellini seem to have their positions guaranteed. On the right side of the 5-man midfield expect to see Antonio Candreva. The Lazio man has been very important to Conte's set up and will have a significant role to play in France. First central midfield spot up for grabs is between Alessandro Florenzi and Marco Parolo with the Roma man being the favourite. The center defensive midfield spot will be a big decision for Conte where we see Daniele De Rossi battle the #10 Thiago Motta. It's expected De Rossi will get the nod, and considering his recent outings for Italy, it looks like the right one. The next center mid will likely be Emanuele Giaccherini, who will offer a good work ethic, and will push forward and almost act as an extra man in the attack. Hopefully he will bring his finishing boots. On the left it's a battle between Stephan El Shaarawy and Matteo Darmian. Both offer two different things; it all will depend on what Conte will want on the day. Expect Darmian to start vs. Belgium for his defensive capabilities. In attack is where questions arise, as Italy are quite poor there and struggle to score. It's proven as they only scored 16 goals in qualifying, one of the worst records amongst qualified teams. Graziano Pellè, who scored 14 goals for Southampton this season, and has five goals for Italy, is expected to have his role on lock, while his partner is up for grabs. It though looks like expected partner Eder has lost his starting 11 spot after his poor second half of the season with Inter. The latest reports suggest Simone Zaza will partner him, battling Ciro Immobile. Lorenzo Insigne is also in contention as well.
Keys to Success:
Italy begins their tournament on Monday against Belgium. It will be an extremely tactical game that will need to see Italy's defense be at its best. This is what is crucial for Italy not just on Monday but also throughout the Euro’s. Italy arguably has the best defense in the world and it’s their big strength that they must use to their advantage. Italy must start off strong; a win, or even a good hard fought draw vs. Belgium is important and sets the pace for the entire group stage. It would slowly silence some critics and set the team up nicely for the games against Sweden and Ireland. Italy doesn’t have a lot of talent and attacking power, but they have a strong goalkeeper, a strong defense, a hard working and gutless midfield and a striker that can pounce at any moment. It doesn't need to be done pretty, but Italy must only have one thing on their mind: winning. Conte knows to how win and I'm certain he'll inject a winning mentality into this group. These guys are not looked at as the favourites, but looked at as a dark horse, and that's exactly the role they'll play. Italy must use their strengths and fight hard.
Time will tell if Antonio Conte and Italy can prove many wrong. But I wouldn't write this very determined Italian side out just yet.