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5 things to know about Ireland's Group E opponents Italy

Martin O’Neills men go up against the Azzurri in Lille on 22 June.

FIVE THINGS ABOUT Italy ahead of the European Championship in Group E, where they face Belgium, Ireland and Sweden:

Italy and the Euros, it’s a love-hate thing

Italy have a love-hate relationship with the European Championship.

They won the World Cup in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006. But since their Euro triumph on their debut in 1968 in a replay win over Yugoslavia, there has been nothing since.

The Azzurri have finished runners-up twice, including in 2012 when then world champions Spain hammered the Azzurri 4-0 in Kiev.

This will be Italy’s ninth participation, having qualified for every Euros since failing to make it to Euro 92 in Sweden.

Euro 2012 — so close, but yet so far

Morale was at an all-time low after a disappointing first-round exit from the 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa, but Italy bounced back at Euro 2012.

Cesare Prandelli’s men drew with Spain (1-1) and Croatia (1-1) before beating Ireland 2-0 to set up a quarter-final clash with England. The scoreless game was settled by a penalty shoot-out that saw Andrea Pirlo score the decisive kick — a cheeky ‘Panenka’ chip down the middle that humiliated England goalkeeper Joe Hart after he had desperately tried to put the midfield maestro off by shouting and waving his arms in the air.

Italy faced Germany in the semis, where Mario Balotelli struck twice in a shock 2-1 victory, but had no answer to a dominant Spain in the final.

Conte seeks winning formula

Antonio Calanni Antonio Calanni

Italy coach Antonio Conte, who will take over at Chelsea following Euro 2016, has left no stone unturned in his bid to forge a competitive Italy side, although a solid and reliable starting XI has yet to emerge.

With the clock ticking down to Italy’s first Group E game against Belgium in Lyon on 13 June, Conte is still experimenting with personnel and tactical formations.

Veteran New York City midfielder Pirlo was overlooked while Paris Saint-Germain’s Marco Verratti misses out through injury, leaving Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), Antonio Candreva (Lazio) and Marco Parolo (Lazio) competing for places in a side sorely lacking creativity.

Balotelli, the semi-final hero of Euro 2012, was also omitted from the tournament. Although Balotelli is still only 25, Conte has rejuvenated his attack, Stephan El Shaarawy (23), Lorenzo Insigne (25), Simone Zaza (24) and Federico Bernardeschi (22) join Brazil-born striker Eder (29) and Graziano Pelle (30) for a tournament that could see several ageing stars bow out.

Red Devil danger

Italy meet Belgium, Sweden and Ireland in Group E of Euro 2016 — and recent history suggests it is the Belgians who are the biggest challenge.

In 21 meetings with the ‘Red Devils’, Italy emerge on top with 13 wins, four draws and four defeats. But thanks to stars like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and Radja Nainggolan, Marc Wilmots’ side have risen to number two in the world rankings behind Argentina. Belgium swept Italy aside 3-1 in Brussels in November.

Italy have won nine, drawn six and lost six in 21 meetings with Sweden. Their last defeat to the Scandinavians was a 1-0 friendly reverse in 1998. Since then, the Azzurri have won three and drawn one, including a 2-1 victory in Euro 2000 when Alessandro Del Piero hit an 88th minute winner in a 2-1 victory in Eindhoven.

Ireland have been Italy’s opponents 13 times and beaten the Azzurri only twice, their maiden victory — at Giants Stadium in the group phase of the 1994 World Cup — causing a sensation. It did not stop Italy from reaching the final, where Roberto Baggio’s dramatic penalty miss handed a fourth title to Brazil.

All eyes on Ibrahimovic

Martin Meissner Martin Meissner

Four Swedes play for teams in Italy’s Serie A, where the bulk of Conte’s squad ply their trade. But Italian fans are likly to take a special interest in Zlatan Ibrahimovic when the sides meet on 17 June in Toulouse.

Ibrahimovic, who won titles with Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan in an unforgettable spell in Serie A, has only played against Italy once, scoring a late leveller in a 1-1 Euro 2004 group stage draw in Porto.

Ibrahimovic’s stay at Juventus finished under a cloud after the Turin giants were stripped of the 2005 and 2006 titles they won with his help for their role in a vast match-fixing scandal.

Currently, Sweden defender Pontus Jansson (Torino) and midfielder Oscar Hiljemark (Palermo) play in Serie A, while Belgium also have two players in Italy’s top flight, in attacking midfielder Dries Mertens (Napoli) and Radja Nainggolan (Roma).

- © AFP, 2016

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