Antonio Conte's final 23-man squad for Euro 2016 has received mixed reactions from the Italian media, with comments about how this is not the best possible unit, but just a bunch of footballers the manager trusts the most. Familiarity, trust and experience dominate the agenda, rather than sheer talent and recent form.
In the build up to the tournament, Conte spoke of how his squad was dominated by players like Graziano Pelle, who were "willing to make sacrifices", and while it is short of novelty, it is dominated by proven talent. If Conte's strategy works, retrospective wisdom would point to experience doing the job on the big stage. If it does not, an ageing, fading squad that succumbed to time's merciless onslaught would be shown the door.
Italy has the fourth oldest squad in the tournament, well behind their Group E opponents Ireland at 28.9 years. Conte's squad has the defensive core of domestic league champions Juventus, led by the timeless Gianluigi Buffon along with Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. Together, they would look to continue their impressive Serie A season, where they conceded just 20 goals in 38 games. It was also their defensive bulwark which ensured Italy could stretch their incredible unbeaten record in all qualifiers (European and FIFA World Cup) for over 10 years now.
However, despite winning four World Cups, Italy has only won the Euros once in its 15-edition history. They finished runners-up twice, most recently in the 2012 edition, and Conte of all people knows the bitterness of slipping up at the final stage, having ended up second best in the 1994 World Cup and the 2000 Euros.
Despite their stellar qualifying record, however, there is a prevailing sense that a lack of quality in midfield and an absence of a goal machine up front could hamper their chances as the tournament goes on. Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio are both out injured, and the combination of Daniele de Rossi and Thiago Motta would likely have to deal with pace and physicality as early as their opening fixture against Belgium. There has been some sharp criticism about Conte omitting the likes of Jorginho and Marco Benassi; but in almost all these cases, there is consistency in his picks — vast national experience is preferred, unless there is an exceptional case to consider.
One such exceptional case is Stephan El-Shaarawy, whose impressive performances for AS Roma over the latter half of the season have meant a place in the final squad.
Graziano Pelle was handed a late Italian debut at the age of 29 by Conte, and the Southampton striker finished the qualifying phase as their leading scorer, and his link up play with Eder down the wings would be crucial to ensuring the goals keep coming. Shorn of genuine superstar quality in the attacking half, Italy go into the tournament looking for a familiar narrative to play out, a mean but assured start giving way to continuous improvement as the tournament goes on, as the pieces slowly fall into place.
The group stage is something of a banana peel, though, with Europe's No 1 ranked side Belgium and the dangerous Sweden to overcome, if they are to ensure smooth progress to the round-of-16. All talk from both sides – Conte talking about sacrifice and team spirit, and the media questioning some of his selections – is over, and he would be looking for closure to the heartbreak he went endured as a player in 2000, when France snatched the trophy from their grasp in injury time.
On paper, a quarterfinal berth looks par for the squad he has assembled. With a checkered record like Italy’s at international tournaments over the last decade, though, who is to predict which side would turn up?
First Published On : Jun 7, 2016 12:15 IST