Antonio Conte is on his way to Chelsea FC, but before he does he has the unenviable task of guiding what must be the weakest looking Italian squad in memory through the Euros. Reading the 23 man squad north of defense and you wouldn’t be remit to assume this was some experimental team for a friendly where fringe members would be given a chance to prove their worth. Well, if you thought so and are a fan of the Azzurri, look away. This is the finality of final squad lists barring injury to further weaken the squad. The squad appears woefully light on goals, light in midfield, and light on star quality.
All is not doom and gloom, however, and it is true the Italians have been hit by injury in the most cruel of fashions. Their best outfield player by a distance, the supremely talented Marco Verratti, suffered a groin injury in February and underwent surgery in April to finally correct the lingering issues from which he had never fully recovered. At 23 years old, Verratti is the obvious successor to one of the very finest Italian players ever, Andrea Pirlo who himself is missing from the squad after going into semi -retirement in MLS and not being at the standard of fitness to really showcase his mesmerising passing ability and vision.
The loss of Verratti was a hammer blow and another nail was driven with the injury to Claudio Marchisio, out with knee ligament damage suffered in April. The 30 year old stands as one of the 20 best eligible players to miss out on Euro 2016 and has reduced a traditional Italian strength to an area of concern. AC Milan captain Riccardo Montolivo also misses out, his second consecutive tournament missed because of injury. A cruel world this is. There is no place for the volatile Mario Balotelli or MLS trekker, the atomic ant, Sebastian Giovinco. Good news is that Daniele de Rossi and Thiago Motta are fit, but none possess the ball retention or passing ability of a Pirlo or Verratti. The inclusion of De Rossi, supposedly to fill the deep lying midfield role is curious since it somewhat comes at the expense of Brazilian born Jorginho who would have been expected to slot in the role in the absence of Verratti.
Other good news is that the Juventus core is rearing to go. That might guide how the Italians approach the tournament. There should be more pragmatism and dare we say it Catenaccio against the likes of Belgium. Italy are not to be underestimated. The third most successful nation in World Cups and tied with Germany of total triumphs with four have had a fascinatingly mixed recent record in major tournaments. A 2006 World Cup triumph that was a lesson in defensive application and organisation and a 2012 clinic from Pirlo have been soured by two consecutive first round exits in the World Cup in 2010 and 2014. Now Italy, the tournament team must show their mettle in a group that includes FIFA’s second ranked team, Belgium, Ireland, and Sweden.
Crucial to the progress the Italians make will be Lorenzo Insigne, the Napoli winger who has been compared favourably and too flatteringly with Napoli legend Diego Maradona, the versatile Alessandro Florenzi, and Antonio Candreva who will hope to have the same impact as he did against England in 2014 when he ran them ragged in partnership with Matteo Darmian who had a mixed first season with Manchester United. The Juventus defensive core is as solid as ever and Graziano Pelle is dependable, if unspectacular. Never count out an Italian team, never dismiss them. One feels this could be another unceremonious exit or a deep run inspired by a standout performance backed by a true Italian team effort. After all, as star studded as the 2006 winning team was in their redemption for that farce 2002 second round exit at the hands of co-hosts, South Korea it was a balanced team effort spearheaded by Fabio Cannavaro, Francesco Totti, and Andrea Pirlo.
If there is one thing endemic to the Azzurri it is slow starts in tournaments. However, this is something they can ill afford with their stronger test to come in the form of Marc Wilmot’s Belgium. Expect a tactical game and do not rule out an Italian team finding a way to come away with a result. If the Italians can make it out the group it should be very interesting how they approach games against more high powered attacks, this average Italy.