Claudio Villa
team effort

Antonio Conte aiming to create an Azzuri side greater than the sum of its parts

The Italians have arrived in France with low expectations.

ANTONIO CONTE ENTERED through a fluorescent blue set adorned with the words ‘Sogno d’Azzurro’ (‘Blue Dream’), as the studio audience were encouraged into enthusiastic applause by the floor manager.

The Italy coach was greeted by Antonella Clerici, a TV presenter now more associated with cooking and music programmes. At that point, it was difficult to know whether Conte was going to announce his Italy squad for Euro 2016 – or his participation in next year’s Eurovision. However, then the camera cut to the arrival of his players – in a convoy of blue-coloured cars.

The chosen 23 stepped out onto the red carpet, signed some autographs for supporters before entering the Big Brother House studio. Italy’s squad announcement was more about fanfare than football – and it all felt horribly contrived.

However, it was an appropriately desperate attempt by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) to drum up support for one of the most underwhelming Azzurri squads in recent memory by agreeing to reveal Conte’s travelling party during of a two-hour live show on state broadcaster RAI.

There was a duet between ageing crooners Claudio Baglioni and Gianni Morandi, Stephan El Shaarawy was reunited with his first coach, while Conte discussed old times with Antonio Benarrivo, his former national team room-mate. However, there was no hiding the fact that there was nothing about the squad to justify the hype.

Soccer Euro 2016 Italy Antonio Calanni Antonio Calanni

Conte had seen to that by selecting a desperately underwhelming panel. As the inclusion of Juventus perennial bench-warmer Stefano Sturaro underlined, perspiration has been valued above inspiration; versatility favoured over ability. “I chose the players who gave me the most guarantees in relation to my ideas,” the former Bianconeri boss explained, revealing precisely why the tried-and-trusted have been preferred to players of potential.

Indeed, there are precious few youngsters to get excited about. Italy will arrive in France as the fifth-oldest squad in the tournament, with an average age of 28 years, 10 months and 19 days. In fairness, Conte is correct when he says Italy no longer have the “young champions” of years gone by. As 2006 World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro pointed out last week, “Some choices were forced upon him. Ten years ago, Lippi had, at his disposal, a Serie A that was 66 per cent Italian. Now we are almost at 36%.”

However, that does not justify the lack of foresight involved in the decision to take the 33-year-old Federico Marchetti as his third-choice goalkeeper ahead of AC Milan’s teenage sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma, the natural heir to Italy’s undisputed No.1, Gigi Buffon. Donnarumma could have gained invaluable international experience working alongside the Juventus shot-stopper at a major tournament – yet he has been left at home, with the Chelsea-bound Conte seemingly unconcerned with leaving any lasting legacy as he prepares to stand down after just two years at the helm.

In Conte’s defence, injury has robbed him of the country’s best young player, Marco Verratti, who has been sidelined with a groin problem. Claudio Marchisio has also been ruled out, depriving Italy of their only other genuinely world-class midfielder. It was thus strange that Conte opted to exclude Jorginho, who is coming off the back of a fine season with Napoli. However, with Verratti and Marchisio both ruled out, Conte has decided that Italy will not be primarily concerned with passing the ball but knocking it long, as quickly as possible. This is side that will play to its strengths – its ability to defend. Conte won three successive Scudetti with a brilliant back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini and they will be the foundation of his starting line-up in France – whether Italy play 3-5-2 or 3-4-3. The focus will be on soaking up pressure and then hitting sides quickly on the break.

Soccer Euro 2016 Italy Antonio Calanni Antonio Calanni

The obvious worry, though, is that Italy don’t have the strikers to take the chances that may come their way. Midfielder Daniele De Rossi is the squad’s top scorer, with 18 goals – more than Graziano Pelle, Eder, Ciro Immobile, Simone Zaza and Stephan El Shaarawy and Lorenzo Insigne combined (14). Pelle is a certain starter yet he couldn’t even nail down a regular berth in the Southampton side last season, while Eder, who is tipped to line up alongside the former Feyenoord forward, has scored just one goal in 2016.

El Shaarawy has been reinvigorated at Roma and boasts the belief and youthful dynamism that could prove invaluable in France – yet he will probably only be utilised if/when Italy are chasing a game. The same goes for Insigne. The Napoli man’s form undoubtedly dipped towards the end of the season but this is a player that Maurizio Sarri describes as “the most talented in Italy” – yet the attacker’s place in the 23-man panel was in doubt right up until last week as he is considered unsuited to Conte’s preferred formation.

With no room for players such as El Shaarawy and Insigne, Italy are set to be desperately short on creativity – that the plodding Thiago Motta will wear the once prestigious No.10 jersey says it all. Even Chiellini admitted that, “We have to make sure we don’t concede much and win matches that way. Italy will have to be a team which wins 1-0 or 2-0 – not 4-3.”

Of course, the optimists are clinging to the idea that adversity brings the best out of Italy. “We are not having our best moment, but when nobody expects anything that is when you can bring out more than you thought you had and surprise people,” Buffon reasoned. However, there is a big difference between this squad and, for example, the one that lifted the World Cup in 2006. Then, there were concerns over the players’ focus due to the fallout from Calciopoli. There was no shortage of talent. This time around, though, there is a distinct lack of individual quality. “To be honest, I don’t see one single player standing out for us,” lamented former Italy No.1 Francesco Toldo.

The challenge, therefore, will be creating a side greater than the sum of its parts. Conte is confident of making this happen. “It isn’t a good time for our football, so it’s important that the squad has a good spirit,” he explained. “I work a lot at this. If we are able to find our way, it’s possible to be one of the outsiders to win Euro 2016.”

Though there have been encouraging signs in the pre-tournament friendlies against Scotland and Finland, with Italy looking well drilled and tactically versatile in both games, expectations are low. As a result, Conte has been repeatedly forced to urge the fans: “Stay close to the national team.” It’s an understandable plea because Italy are likely to need all of the help they can get in France.

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