Avenging Azzurri emerge as Euros dark horse after sinking Spain en route to quarters
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | June 27, 2016
Be honest, you didn’t have Italy down as being credible contenders to win Euro 2016 did you?
Conte doing the Italian job
Failing to win any of their meaningful warm-up friendlies, having made hard work of qualifying for the France finals from what was an easier group on paper that it panned out, the lack of a star forward in Azzurri ranks had pundits turning their noses up.
Coral’s football writers were among them, decrying this Italy as the worst outfit that country has produced in modern times. No Roberto Baggio, no Alessandro Del Piero, not even Andrea Pirlo in midfield.
And yet, the last vestiges of the 2006 World Cup winning vintage – Gianluigi Buffon in goal, Andrea Barazgli in defence and Daniele De Rossi shoring things up in midfield – have proved pivotal to their Euros tilt.
It is no accident that the Azzurri, now cut into 11/2 by Coral (from 16/1 before a ball was kicked) to be European champions for the first time since 1968, have failed to concede a goal when Antonio Conte has fielded his first-choice back three and long-serving national stopper.
Pelle proves his worth
Southampton poacher Graziano Pelle, a late-comer to international football with Italy, has done wonders to settle the nerves with stoppage time goals in the key contests.
Putting both Belgium and Spain to bed – two sides more fancied in the outright Euros betting before the tournament – is a remarkable achievement for Ronald Koeman acolyte Pelle, who lacks the high-profile of previous Azzurri number nines.
It has only struck home recently how much alike he is to the recently retired Luca Toni, the battering ram that led the Italian line so successfully a decade or so ago.
Both have been bulky focal points – a tactical nuance that has proven to serve the Azzurri well whatever style of approach play goes on behind them.
History a help to Azzurri
When it comes to the Euros in the modern era, Italy have twice been bridesmaids; beaten finalists to David Trezeuget’s golden goal and France in 2000 and outclassed by Spain four years ago.
That latter 4-0 thumping from Euro 2012 was avenged in excellent fashion with a functional Azzurri thwarting and dethroning La Roja, who were bidding to lift a third consecutive European Championship.
Goals from Giorgio Chiellini and Pelle put Italy past Spain, however, and now they meet Germany in the quarter-finals, having never lost a tournament international to Die Mannschaft in eight previous meetings.
March madness might be best ignored
Punters must decide whether that stat is more relevant than the March friendly in which the Germans dismantled the Azzurri at the Allianz Arena 4-1.
It may surprise you to learn that the latter is less significant than the bear result appears. Conte experimented in Munich, with no more than four of the starting XI likely to reprise such roles at the Euros.
Die Mannschaft – 3/1 for Euro 2016 glory after lifting the last World Cup – may field as many as half a dozen of the side picked by Joachim Low from the start then, but a German hoodoo will have to be dispelled regardless of personnel and form.
Having absorbed what an admittedly diminished Spain had to offer and with history on their side when paired with Germany on a stage like this, current odds of 3/1 for an Italian victory in 90 minutes are terrific value.
Not a tournament for elite individuals
No other Euro 2016 quarter-final quite has the X-factor or big match feel that the Azzurri against Low’s lads offers.
Poland (16/1 for the tournament) playing Portugal (13/2) can be billed to some extent about two individuals, prolific for perennial Champions League business end makers Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
An underlying irony there is that neither Robert Lewandowski nor Cristiano Ronaldo have proved particularly reliable at the France finals, despite the latter’s brace in a 3-3 draw with Hungary that highlights how far the Navigators are actually off-course.
Instead, it has fallen to supporting cast members like Jakub Blaszczykowski and Arkadius Milik from a Polish perspective, plus Nani and Ricardo Quaresma for the Portuguese, to make more telling impacts.
Dragons roar, England no more
Wales (25/1 chances for the Euros) battling Belgium (4/1) has more of a good, old-fashioned FA Cup tie feel about it. Chris Coleman’s Dragons took four points off the Red Devils in qualifying, and that should give them a psychological edge.
Although key Welsh duo Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey have expressed themselves on the big stage, they are now taking on a star-studded and much lauded Belgian outfit that crushed Hungary thanks to Eden Hazard actually turning up – much to every Chelsea fan’s bemusement.
We save the worst to the last. England, embarrassed by Iceland who came from behind to eliminate them, are left to rue their chronic inability to impress in tournament football. To see Joe Hart make further mistakes with the Three Lions also undone by a long throw is disturbing enough.
What is truly galling is Nordic nation Iceland have a population roughly equivalent to Coventry or Leicester, and Kari Arnarson played in League Two for Rotherham United in 2012/13. He kept both Premier League Golden Boot winner Harry Kane and runner-up Jamie Vardy quiet when they came on.
Les Bleus should sail into semis
Euro 2016 hosts France, now narrow 14/5 favourites in the outright betting, are unlikely to be so generous, despite the absences of defensive duo N’Golo Kante and Adil Rami through suspension.
Instead of a cross-Channel clash which are always emotional occasions, plucky Iceland (40/1 tournament outsiders) will be even bigger underdogs against Les Bleus.
Roy Hodgson, meanwhile, is not having his contract renewed, leaving his role as national coach after four year in charge and yet no clear homegrown alternative presents themselves. The FA may have to go back down the foreign coaching route.
England’s exit comes because Premier League firepower does not translate to international duty and a dodgy defence has been undone from set plays time and again at the Euros. Italy stand firm, and look vastly more worthy as 13/2 Euro chances than Portugal.