Euro 2012 runners-up Italy qualified for this summer’s finals with ease having come through qualification without a single defeat to their name. Italy will be hoping to go one better this time around, adding to the one European championship title that they won back in 1968.
That tournament 48 years ago was considerably easier to win having been played on Italian soil and consisting of just four teams – the Azzuri, England, Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R.
Italy overcame the Yugoslavians 2-0 in a replayed final after a 1-1 draw just two days prior. Under Antonio Conte, the Italians will have to be at their very best if they are going to triumph this summer having dropped down to fifteenth in the FIFA rankings – their lowest position since the systems inception in December 1992
Jim Hart, the Chairman and co-founder of Year Zero Soccer as well as writing for These Football Times on Italian football was kind enough to spend some time with us discussing the nation’s chances in France.
Italy qualified for Euro 2016 without losing a single game from what was a relatively easy group – how was qualifying as a whole and who were the star players?
The group was certainly an easy one by Italian standards, with only Croatia as their primary competition to reach France. None of the qualifying was an overwhelming success, with many matches won by a single goal or two only in the case of Norway. Italy has always been a defensive minded side first, and Conte is no different a coach from past managers in this case, the defence must come first, then worry about scoring.
As for star players, there has been some controversy about the Brazilian born Éder, who plies his trade at Inter and has been capped nine times with two goals, his inclusion has caused a stir with Roberto Mancini coming out as saying that only “Italian born players should play for the Azzurri”.
With few striking options Conte will play Éder and live with the criticism. His other option being to bring a troublesome Balotelli, who has played only a single 90 minute match in recent months for AC Milan.
In addition, we may see Argentinian born, and famously noted as not knowing the words to Italy’s national anthem, Franco Vazquez as a striking option. This depends on the form of others such as Graziano Pellè and Ciro Immobile.
Having scored only 16 goals in 10 qualifiers, Italy somewhat laboured to first place with 1-0 wins over Malta both home and away – does that really matter come summer?
Italy has always been the most pragmatic of footballing nations, cherishing the defensive style as much as scoring. The great voice of Italian football from the 40’s through the 80’s, Gianni Brera of Gazzetta dello Sport, said that to him the “perfect game is a 0-0 draw”. Italy is most happy when the game is played at their pace and in their control. No other country sees a 1-0 win as big a victory as Italy is capable of seeing.
Never will we see an Italian team do to another team what Germany did to Brazil in the World Cup in 2014, that type of dominance isn’t in the Italian DNA. If they get the lead, they will sit on it and become compact, closing down the passing lanes and swallowing the other sides every opportunity. To Italy that is how they show dominance, not by scoring goals, but by not allowing the other side to smell the box.
What are Italy’s chances in France – they have been drawn in a difficult group with Sweden, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland – who poses the biggest threat?
There is no question that Belgium poses the greatest offensive threat with Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku leading the line. Eden Hazard is in the midst of an off year, with a nagging hip injury that may keep him from being at his most dangerous at the tournament. Thibaut Courtois, the star goalkeeper for Chelsea, is showing signs of unsteadiness at the front of goal, where he hasn’t looked the same since coming back from knee surgery late in 2015.
Sweden is always dangerous when Zlatan is on the pitch. But the supporting cast is not as deep as in recent years, so Italy should take all three points from the Swedes. Ireland has had the hot hand, but they do not have the striking power to break through Conte’s stiff defensive backbone. Another three pointer for Italy. It all comes down to the Belgium match, and since Italy is historically a bad team in the group stage I expect they will do well to get a draw in this match, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them fall to the Belgians. A second place finish in the group is about what to expect.
Once into the knock-out rounds the potential exists for a good run at least to the semi-finals, of course depending on who makes it and what surprises come up. The Azzurri would not likely face such giants as Germany or France until late in the tournament.
What is public opinion in Italy about their chances?
As usual the Italians are pessimistic on their chances, in true form they do not like the fact that players like Ciro Immobile, who is a true Napolitana, will need to perform well in order for the Azzurri to advance. There is optimism about the coach, who was both a star player at Juventus and their manager, who brought the Scuddetto to Juventus three seasons in a row before taking the national job.
Anything less than a semi-final or perhaps even a finals appearance will be considered a failure in Italy. Football is religion and there can be no failure in their religion. The tifosi will expect results, no matter that stars have left, retired, been injured, whatever the case, Conte is expected to bring home a result. Especially after the disappointment of the 2014 World Cup. There will be thousands of fans from Italy in the stands cheering for their Azzurri and they will not accept failure.
What kind of tactics are Italy likely to employ in the summer – does Antonio Conte like to mix it up?
Even though this is Antonio Conte’s last stand as manager for the national team there is no reason to expect him to go off script. We will see something similar to a 3-5-2 with a defensive bent that clogs the middle and remains extremely patient. Just as we witnessed in qualifying we will likely see more 1-0 matches with Italy controlling the pace and pattern of the match.
How big a miss will Claudio Marchisio be in midfield after his recent cruciate injury? Who will replace him in the squad?
This is all bad news for Conte, with Veratti already on the mend he is faced with having to patch together a midfield from perhaps these four players: Daniele De Rossi, Marco Parolo, Thiago Motta and Ricardo Motolivo. None of whom have the character or quality of Marchisio. This will cause headaches all along the path for Conte.
Italy has never had a shortage of quality up front – who will lead the line in France?
The strike force will likely consist of the aforementioned Brazilian born Éder who has scored in the qualifying round on two occasions and looked good doing so, along with Graziano Pellè who seems to be back in form of late, Stephen El Shaarawy is making a strong push to be picked as his play continues to shine for the Gialirossi in Roma and Simone Zaza another possibility who is a reliable strike force. Ciro Immobile could make the side as he has shown well in his time with the side, but has youth and inexperience at the national level against him.
How to you rate this current team – Italy has had some tremendous teams in the past – how does this squad compare?
The 2016 team is a mix of youth and experience, they have Gigi Buffon as captain once again, who set the Serie A record for longest clean sheet record this season, and by all measure has not lost a step, along with some interesting young players such as Ciro Immobile, the lighting rod from Naples who has a thunderous strike and the pace needed to get past defenders.
Andrea Pirlo will be a big missing component from past sides, mostly for his quiet leadership and dressing room authority. If Mario Balotelli misses the call, which by all indications he will, the dressing room will be a much less dramatic and potentially more focused on the task at hand. Italy always fields a strong side, this year is no exception, it remains a question how strong on the offensive side, on the defensive side of the ball we can expect the same as always, low scoring affairs and defensive battles.
Are there any potential star players coming through the youth system?
Certainly the up and coming Ciro Immobile is one star in the making. Stephan El Shaarawy is only 23, even though he has been on the scene for while, he is still young in national team appearances. Daniele Rugani of Juventus is an up and coming defender who is showing great promise on the national team level. One more name is Mattia Perin the GK from Genoa could be a long term replacement for the ageless wonder of Gigi Buffon, at 23 he is seeing some action with the senior side.
The glory days of Serie A were in the 90s with the world’s best talent on show in the league – what is the state of domestic football at the moment – it seems that Juventus dominate year on year?
Juventus have certainly dominated, and they should given the squad they put out every week. It only took a few matches early in the season to adjust to the loss of Pirlo and in recent days the Juventini have picked up nearly maximum points. The strength behind them is all from the south, Roma and Napoli. Investment in Roma from American ownership, and a possible new stadium, are starting to show better results for the Gialorossi, smart investment on transfer deals and good coaching selection are the strength of Napoli.
Fiorentina are also ascendant and are looking to nick the final Champions League spot from Roma. Internazionale is reborn and looking to buy more good players, having recently been linked to a deal with Chelsea’s Brazilian play-maker, Oscar. Italy was performing well enough in European competition to threaten the fourth Champions League spot that the English Premier holds by virtue of the UEFA coefficient. That has since been erased by the performance of Manchester City in the Champions League and Liverpool in the Europa League. The truth is that England and Italy are very close in terms of continental performance.
With Antonio Conte on his way to Chelsea after the conclusion of Euro 2016, what is next for the Italians?
A very difficult question to answer, Italy could look to the past, perhaps a Fabio Capello type who would be expected to keep the traditional Italian spirit. Another school says that Italy needs to join the 21st century and start playing more attacking football and they need to bring in a Pep Guardiola style of manager. The Italy manager job is one of the most scrutinized of all jobs in football, the Italian press is always critical of every decision they make. The manager must be tough skinned and prepared for constant attack.
Other names that have been mentioned in the Italian press include, Claudio Rainieri, however he is likely to return to Leicester to collect a big pay-check. Eusebio Di Francesco and Vincenzo Montella have both been mentioned, but seem to be underdogs due to their low profiles outside of Italy. Marcello Lippi has been mentioned, but that should be dismissed outright as his last stint was a complete disaster, and a third stint is unlikely. The door seems wide open at this point, and the federation seems more focused on the Euro’s than finding the next man for the job.
A huge thanks goes out to Jim Hart for agreeing to the interview and answering in such depth. Jim does some excellent work for These Football Times, so be sure to head over there and follow him for stories on Calcio on Twitter. Please also head over to Year Zero Soccer which is an organization he founded which focuses on the advancement of soccer as an open and accessible sport in the United States.