Low expectations of the Azzurri and Conte

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Italy Manager Antonio ConteFor once, expectations surrounding Italy aren’t what they usually are. The Azzurri are a proud footballing nation and enter most tournaments with a chance of winning it, however, confidence and the general feeling among the fans is that they are going to struggle at France this summer. Manager Antonio Conte is Chelsea bound with Giampiero Ventura set to replace him after the tournament, certainly not ideal preparation for the Italians. Qualification was fairly comfortable, they topped a group that contained Croatia, although some of the performances were less than thrilling, which included two dour 1-0 wins over lowly Malta.

So they head to France without the usual optimism but they of course possess many strengths. Notably the defensive side of things, which is inspired by Juventus. Gigi Buffon is in goal with a back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, all of who play for the champions. They know each other’s game inside out and are all excellent defenders and they are players that the country can rely on. Their experience and organisation will make them very hard to score against, and their connection with the manager will also be beneficial. Conte coached Juventus to consecutive Scudetto titles and will be aware of how good his defensive unit is, and how to get the best out of them.  He is also a manager that benefits when his side are up against it, like Italy will be at Euro 2016. You can expect him to create a siege mentality amongst the group which could go a long way in creating a bond that will benefit the team.

However, the pessimism surrounding Italy is rightly justified when you look at the midfield and forward options. The two standout midfielders have been cruelly ruled out of the tournament through injury, Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio. PSG man Verratti, had the potential to be a star of the tournament, his brilliant passing and touch was vital to the way Italy played throughout qualifying and he will be irreplaceable. Marchisio isn’t far behind, the Juventus man had an outstanding season, that resulted in yet another Serie A crown, but he suffered an injury late into the campaign that will have wrecked his summer. They will likely be replaced in midfield by two of Marco Parolo, Daniele De Rossi and Thiago Motta.

Itay - Thiago MottaMotta became a symbol of the dissatisfaction amongst Italy fans when he was handed the coveted number ’10’ shirt. Previously worn by the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti and Roberto Baggio, Motta, a solid defensive midfielder, is a reminder of how the squad is no longer filled with that quality anymore. In another surprising midfield twist, Conte opted for Juventus’ Stefan Sturaro ahead of Napoli’s deep-lying playmaker Jorginho who had a superb domestic campaign. That drew widespread criticism and accusations were aimed at Conte of favouring his former club.

If the midfield options are less than inspiring the same can be said for the forwards. Simone Zaza, Juventus fourth choice forward, will likely lead the line. He is aggressive and hard-working but not exactly prolific. He may be partnered by Graziano Pelle of Southampton, who is a fairly good target man but is he really the man to fire Italy to glory? You can find the latest news, odds and offers on all the Italy games here. Ciro Immobile and Eder make up the striking options, but both are still unconvincing at this level. So the chief threat for Italy could come from the wide men, Antonio Candreva and Stephan El Shaarawy., with Fernando Bernadeschi an exciting young back up. They are about the only players that possess a bit of unpredictability and magic in the Italian squad.

However, we shouldn’t dismiss Italy’s ability to grind out results. It won’t be pretty on the eye but it could be effective, they have a top goalkeeper and defence that should mean they are always in the games. They have been handed a tough group, with Belgium, Sweden and Republic of Ireland, and it really will be close to call. An early elimination is a possibility but this is Italy and who knows just how far the Italian underdog can go? Conte will be confident they can battle their way to latter stages.