It has been ten years since the Azzurri last clinched a major international title. Interestingly, back in 2006, no one expected Italy to win the World Cup. The nation had been rocked by the calciopoli scandal that eventually saw titans Juventus relegated to Serie B. Yet, seemingly against all odds, they managed to see off favorites Germany and France en route to lifting the trophy in Berlin.
In 2010, as reigning champions, much was expected of them in South Africa, but a very young and inexperienced squad were embarrassingly dumped out at the group stages. As such, expectations of Italy were not high by the time Euro 2012 rolled around. But, just like in 2006, the Azzurri again surprised everyone by making it all the way to the finals. Although they were thrashed 4-0 by Spain, it was nonetheless an impressive achievement for a team many had written off after the South African failure.
Two years later, another World Cup rolled around, and the hopes were high again. And just like in 2014, there was more disappointment as they again failed to clear the group stages. Out went Cesare Prandelli, and in came former Juventus coach Antonio Conte. Serie A fans are certainly well aware of the wonders the former Bianconeri midfielder worked to make La Vecchia Signora Italy’s number one side again. And Italy under the Conte era had a solid qualifying campaign. They topped their group with seven wins and three draws, and until a 1-0 loss to Portugal in June 2015, Conte was unbeaten in his tenure as the national team boss.
2016 has been one of mixed results, however. Although they picked up a 1-1 draw with Spain, they were thrashed 4-1 by Germany. The Azzurri might have won their last two friendlies – against Scotland and Finland – whilst keeping a clean sheet, but their offense left something to be desired.
Of serious concern is the huge void in midfield. Both Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti are out due to injury, and anyone who has seen the Juventus and PSG players in action are certainly well aware of their tactical nous in the middle of the park. Surprisingly, Conte opted to snub Andrea Pirlo – who, in the absence of Marchisio and Verratti is more desperately needed than ever. Another curious absentee was striker Sebastian Giovinco, who, despite setting MLS alight was overlooked by Conte due to choosing to play in the USA.
There was also no room for the volatile Mario Balotelli, but that really was of little surprise, as the AC Milan man has been frozen out of the side since Conte’s arrival. Goals, however are in short supply: Graziano Pelle is currently the top-scoring striker with five goals to his name. So, what, then, of Italy’s chances at Euro 2016? Well, they have not been placed in an easy group. There’s dark horses Belgium, Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Sweden, and the Republic of Ireland for company. But interestingly enough, when people write Italy off, they tend to shine – and after Brazil, most people don’t even mention them in conversation about contenders for the title.
That, as we saw back in 2012, and more important, in 2006, could certainly work to Italy’s advantage.