Barring England’s round of 16 exit, Italy’s progress has been the biggest surprise of this Euro 16 tournament.
Led by veteran coach Antonio Conte, the Azurri have become a major contender, despite everything going against them in the buildup to the competition.
Conte’s team selection was the main concern at the start, leaving the manager widely criticised by analysts, journalists and the like.
Looking at his team on paper, they weren’t even supposed to make it out of the group stage. No one expected Italy to beat Belgium in their first match, much less top the group.
Getting past Spain in the first round of the knockout stage was supposed to be an even bigger challenge, yet the Italians made easy work of the defending champions, putting on an offensive show to produce a 2-0 result.
What’s amazing is the fact that the biggest name in this team is actually Conte’s; well if you look past Gianluigi Buffon. There are no stars out on the pitch, just a group of individuals who share a common bond and goal.
Conte’s leading strikers have been Graziano Pelle and Eder, whose age, when combined adds up to an astonishing 59 years. In spite of that, though, they have proven to be one of the most effective strike partnerships in the tournament, scoring three important goals between them.
They surely aren’t household names, although Pelle has been doing quite well at Southampton over the past two seasons. Eder, on loan at Inter Milan from Sampdoria, isn’t half bad either, yet the pair hardly strike fear into opposing defences, at least not before the start of the tournament.
In midfield, players such as Emanuele Giaccherini, Marco Parolo and Daniele De Rossi have been made to look like stars; and that’s not to take away from any of them, but considering the fact that Giaccherini was loaned away by Sunderland, the 31-year-old probably shouldn’t even be here.
Defensively, there was never any concern, as this was the only department which looked solid on paper. Georgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli have certainly lived up to expectations at the back, but the players in front of them have more than surpassed.
What could inspire such a team to perform at such a high level? Well, it could be several things. However, Conte’s influence is the biggest factor, and he makes sure everyone knows.
Lots of players in the squad have spoken up about their boss, praising his attitude, confidence, attention to detail, and the way he brings everyone together.
He seems everything a team needs in a manager, and while Chelsea fans will never get over Jose Mourinho, they should probably get ready to fall in love again.
Conte’s tactics have proven quite effective, both in this tournament, and back when he managed at Juventus. He ensures that his teams are well drilled, well informed, and always ready for battle.
He accepts nothing less than 100 per cent effort from all of his players, and demands perfection from all of them. This was typified on Monday against the Spaniards, when Giaccherini’s poor touch sent a ball rolling towards his manager, who, in a fit of rage, hoofed the ball away.
The error was quite harmless, and left Italy in no danger, but Conte was upset that his team had missed an opportunity to counter Spain’s attack. He has even gone as far as threatening to kill his players when they let him down during games.
The Italian’s touchline antics really do make Mourinho seem a docile lamb. Just look at the way he celebrated after Pelle scored the second goal which guaranteed the win over Spain, or how he punched himself in the face when a goal was scored in their first game against Belgium.
This is exactly the type of manager Chelsea need right now, given that some of their players’ actions led to Mourinho being fired last year. Conte would probably strangle someone to death if it ever came to that, but it’s hard to imagine things getting this bad, as he’s the type of coach whom players give everything for.
Conte will have to face World Cup winners Germany next. At this point, however, losing will take nothing off him – from a managerial perspective – as Italy have proven everyone wrong so far, and have done more than enough with the team they have.