Are Italy really Euro 2016 outsiders after Conte comments?
Holly Thackeray | June 7, 2016
Looking back throughout football history, it is not often European royalty Italy, joint with Germany for second most World Cup wins and only one behind Brazil, can call themselves outsiders for a crown.
Yet, according to Azzurri coach Antonio Conte in a recent interview, that is exactly what the 1968 European Champions are ahead of Euro 2016, despite finishing runners-up four years ago in Poland and Ukraine.
So, why exactly, Coral writers consider, are Italy just sixth favourites for glory in France at 18/1, notably behind England and Belgium – two nations who can’t hold a candle to the Azzurri’s international success?
Intentional lowering of Azurri expectations?
The easy answer would of course be that Italy’s squad is far from the exquisite selection of decades past, when there was the likes of Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Paulo Maldini, Genaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and co to cherry pick from.
Next Chelsea coach Conte, who soared to three successive Scudetti with Juventus before taking the Azzurri challenge on board, could be forgiven for thinking he has drawn the shortest straw of Italian selection when perusing his potential roster, as PSG deep playmaker Marco Veratti and box-to-box talent Claudio Marchisio were both ruled out of the Euros with injury.
“It isn’t a good moment for our football,” Conte told media.
“It’s important that the squad has a good spirit. I work a lot at this. If we are able to find this way, it’s possible to be an outsider.”
Let’s be honest here, Italy possess a roster of champions and players who know how to win. With record-breaking number one Gianluigi Buffon in goal and still at his peak, decorated defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci, experienced if ageing shield Daniele De Rossi plus Premier League poacher Graziano Pelle all on the plane to France, they are hardly raiding the cupboard for leftovers.
Lacking a true playmaker like Pirlo they may be, but a Portugal or Croatia dark horse they are most certainly not when history, star names and young talents are all taken into account. After all, this is the spirited nation that rallied back from the domestic Calciopoli scandal to sweep to 2006 World Cup success in a feisty final versus Zinedine Zidane-inspired France.
At an enticing 8/1 to reach their third European Championship final in the last five tournaments, can Italy really be considered outsiders? Or is Blues-bound tactician Conte just attempting to lower expectations? It could be a case of instilling a backs against the wall mentality, or even covering for potential fallout if the Azzurri fail.
However, as the big name nation they are this could easily backfire, as Italy should always be self-assured and brimming with confidence as they don the royal blue jersey.
No young talent awaiting Azzurri?
If 12th place FIFA-ranked Italy are rated lower due to a far from inspiring roster, then the buck should stop with Conte. The boss has revealed a very inconsistent Azzurri outfit within recent months, managing to hold reigning European champions Spain but beaten comprehensively by upcoming Pool E competitors Belgium and also Germany before two successive victories against Scotland and Finland.
Conte, despite being deprived of Veratti (who boasts only 15 caps so can hardly be considered a lynchpin) and co, has made his choices and will have to stick by a squad that seems far from balanced on paper. Formations in flux, with two up top and three at the back, and an abundance of players picked for wing positions, with few top-quality midfield marshals, it appears Conte is still tinkering with just days to go.
While, Italy also have the fourth-oldest squad at the France finals, as only seven from Conte’s selection of 23 are 25 or under, which has led to criticism in some quarters when comparing Conte’s decisions to the likes of England, where Roy Hodgson has opted to bring Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Marcus Rashford and co along for the ride.
The Azzurri once again seem behind the times in terms of blooding youth, with few players to bridge the gap between veterans and fledglings. Yet, pundits were also put out by 37-year-old Pirlo’s exclusion, so in fairness it appears Conte cannot win.
The former Juve boss has also taken a handful of young-guns in Fiorentina wing threat Federico Bernardeschi (22), AC Milan- owned attacker Stephan El Shaarawy (23), and Juventus box-to-box midfielder Stefano Sturaro (23), but the big youth omission was Old Lady centre back Daniele Rugani and uncapped Sassuolo forward Domenico Berardi. In the light of their exclusion, picks like Eder Citadin Martins up top are puzzling.
No international experience
Though, Conte himself spoke about the supposed lack of young quality jostling to take over from those established and evergreen in Azzurri shirts.
When questioned about the apparent dearth of talent, the tactician said: “It is very difficult to explain why you know, why now there aren’t talented players, young players in a country where we always had talented players. Very, very difficult to understand the real reason.
“It’s very, very difficult to find strong young players. For this reason, we are working hard to become a good squad,” continued Conte.
“We know this is a moment that is difficult for us, but together we can overcome these difficulties.”
When looking a top prospects around Europe, however, Italy have their fair share in Verrati, Rugani, Bernardeschi, Berardi plus AC Milan prodigies Alessio Romagnoli, Davide Calabria, Jose Mauri and Gianluigi Donnarumma, as well as Lazio’s Danilo Cataldi and Torino’s Marco Benassi.
Of course they are all unlikely to come good and there is no guarantee of an enduring Totti-type talent lurking, but the future is far from dark, if not bright. Germany cannot count on Leroy Sane and Julian Brandt to realise their potential, likely though it may seem, while England will hope that rampant Rashford can continue to shine after the buzz has faded, but nothing is certain in football.
One player Conte seems to rate is Viola wingman Bernardeschi, however, described as “very, very young but he has a great potential to become top.”
Yet, it was curious that the Azzurri boss also stated: “The other players are very, very good but without international experience.”
In charge since 2014, Conte has surely had chance to blood his youngsters with Italy’s increasing age obvious. Yet, as previously mentioned Berardi remains uncapped, his seven-goal season for Sassuolo admittedly disappointing but only by the standards set as he racked-up 31 goals in all competitions over the previous two terms.
Still, the 21-year-old clearly has talent in his toes, but if not the experience to match, the fault for leaving a potential game changer and long-term prospect behind for the likes of older Eder and Simone Zaza, who arguably have much lower ceilings, remains at Conte’s door.
Perhaps two young wingers would be too much for France, with departing Conte likely focused on leaving a legacy, but integrating more optimism and exciting talent would surely have boosted Italy ahead of their Euro adventure, where they are 11/4 to make the semi-finals. Youth or experience aside, either way Italian pride demands they must be more than outsiders.