Connect in the back of the net

Below is the fourth installment of a Euro 2016 column titled “Footé in France” by O-Posts mainstay and top football writer, Adam Gray.

Before he leaves for Chelsea and hands the reigns over to Giampiero Ventura, Italy coach Antonio Conte will be aiming to sign off on a high after two years in charge. Conte took over after Italy’s terrible 2014 World Cup campaign saw them leave Brazil at the group stage and this summer in France will be the marker of how far the Azzurri have progressed under Conte and the shape they are in as they prepare to be passed on to the new man.

From the team that crashed out of Brazil early, there are only nine new faces in the 23 Conte takes to France as the former Juventus coach keeps faith with some familiar faces in a squad that mixes peerless experience with established youth.

The seemingly immovable Juventus backline of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci, with 354 caps between them at a combined age of 133, are included in a defence that appears as formidable as any other at the tournament. Daniele De Rossi, with 103 caps to his name, is likely to be partnered in midfield by PSG’s Thiago Motta who has only earned 26 caps by the age of 33.

The reason for Motta’s sporadic appearances is the usual inclusions of Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio under Conte, but that duo will miss the tournament through injury. Time has also caught up with 37 year old Andrea Pirlo who will miss his first international tournament since Euro 2004 after being left out of the squad due to his decision to see out his career in the MLS.

Without that trio Italy’s squad appears uncharacteristically underwhelming throughout midfield and in attack where Simone Zaza, Graziano Pelle, Ciro Immobile, Eder and Lorenzo Insigne share only 11 goals for the national side.

With the penny still to drop with Mario Balotelli, France is shorn of the AC Milan striker’s inevitably animated sideshow and what will be good for squad harmony isn’t so good for neutral interest. The Azzurri are short of the type of star names that illuminated their past squads. It speaks volumes that there will be a strong reliance on Alessandro Florenzi, Roma’s captain who features primarily at right-back, for a threat in the final-third.

The Brazilian-born Eder offers industry and heavy running in attack but has scored just once since moving from Sampdoria to Inter Milan in January. Pelle and Zaza will be competing for the role of target man in a front-line that will vary between a duo or a trio depending on which system Conte plumps for between his favoured 3-5-2 and 3-4-3.

Regardless, with Napoli’s Jorginho a surprise omission, Italy may be short of creative guile so they could be relying on their wide men to pack their punch.

Lazio’s Antonio Candreva was one of the stand-out players in an otherwise flat warm-up friendly win over Finland, in which he scored the opening goal, and will play on the right-flank with vigorous energy but the left could open up a space to Federico Bernardeschi of Fiorentina, the 22 year old who is comfortable playing in any position across the front and has registered 4 caps since receiving his first call-up as recently as March.

Though preferring to play in Candreva’s position on the right in which Bernardeschi can cut in on his favoured left foot to get shots away, Conte may find room for his defensive awareness and technical ability on the left. The Fiorentina man isn’t afraid to take on his man and is direct, offering what could be missing for the Azzurri with Giacomo Bonaventura and Franco Vaquez both left at home.

Bernardeschi has returned from the ankle fracture that ruled him out for seven months in 2014 to become an influential component in the Fiorentina team under manager Paulo Sousa. He completed almost twice as many dribbles than any other member of the La Viola squad last term and only four players created more chances than the 22 year old’s 41.

He posted those numbers wearing the purple number 10 shirt made famous by Roberto Baggio and Bernardeschi counts Francesco Totti as his role model. How Conte and Italy could do with the technical winger replicating the heroics of those two icons out in France.

The Azzurri produced some bland performances in qualifying but were rarely troubled in topping their game with 10 games unbeaten, though recent friendly thrashings at the hands of Belgium, whom they open their Euro 16 campaign against on Monday, and Germany will concern Conte but they are likely to be typically focussed an hard to beat once the competitive action starts.

Conte’s Italy will be unfancied underdogs this summer but with a defence as impregnable as the quartet that dominates Serie A with Juventus, they have the platform to go far once again. But they will need somebody to assume the mantle in an attacking sense and put your money on it being the dangerous Bernardeschi, or Stephan El Shaarawy who has enjoyed a renaissance on loan at Roma.

Those two, without discarding Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne, could produce the stardust that takes Italy deep into tournament.


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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