It’s tough to talk about La Nazionale these days. There are very few certainties, after an up-and-down qualifying campaign.
Our imaginary Azzurri building blocks are full of red flags. Italy are unbeaten in fifty qualifiers? Sure, against the likes of Bulgaria and Malta. Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci still make elementary mistakes in an Azzurri shirt. Marco Verratti still has developing to do.
There are so many doubts that’s it is worth asking whether we’re asking the right questions, or contextualising them properly. For example, is having a great squad enough to do well? A combination of Maldini, Cannavaro, and Nesta played in France 1998 as well as World Cup 2002, and won nothing.
Calcio fans are worried about the future, namely the lack of talent coming through and the limited opportunities it gets to spread its wings. But weren’t those same concerns present before Euro 2012? Sure, Prandelli’s squad was better, it could rely on the defence and be creative enough in attack, not to mention having talents like Andrea Pirlo, coupled with a Mario Balotelli in the form of his life.
The question then is, can a positive cohesive unit be built in just a few months? More importantly, with the Championships expanding and the draw potentially throwing up the likes of Portugal, Iceland and the Czech Republic, can Conte’s men break down packed defences without ending up like Holland - who finished behind the latter two and didn’t make the tournament - as well as picking up enough momentum to go deep into the tournament?
That remains to be seen. Antonio Conte has complained of feeling “alone” and of a lack of co-operation from big clubs just when he needs to build a team. He does, however, have a reputation for moulding very good teams out of decent players, rather than decent teams out of great players, something Azzurri fans have seen all too often. His Stakhanovite approach should stop his players from melting in the sun and getting run off the park, as Prandelli’s charges did in Brazil.
Moreover, the Azzurri looked much sharper with 4-4-2/4-2-4 against Azarbaijan and Norway, with Verratti pulling the strings in midfield against the former and Roberto Soriano looking promising against the Scandinavians.
They may not be a team yet, but the chemistry between Eder and Graziano Pelle can be relied upon in attack, the same with Bonucci and Chiellini at the back, Verratti and Claudio Marchisio in midfield. If Italy can keep creating numerical superiority in certain areas and break through, rather than spread the ball around and into the opposition box, they’ll have made progress. For once, they have a reliable striker in Pelle. Five years ago, he was earning a Serie A spot with Sampdoria. Now, he could be Italy’s hard-working, poor man’s Christian Vieri.
With any luck, the middle of the park will be able to shield the defence in the absence of a true enforcer. Antonio Candreva or Soriano hold things together and players like Verratti, Pelle and Eder can provide the spark, with the likes of Alessandro Florenzi and Matteo Darmian wreaking havoc on the wings.
Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne should also come into contention, with the playmaker in the form of his life under Maurizio Sarri. The little Neapolitan represents a genuine trump card, who can turn the game with a moment of magic, something not many other countries can boast.
But even this may not be enough. Working hard is great, but everyone at a major competition will do that. Italy had Nesta, Cannavaro and Gattuso to build around in 2006. Talented though they are, Chiellini, Bonucci and Marchisio are not in the same bracket.
For all his good work, Conte could be a hindrance, too, especially if Italy are as flat as Juventus were in their Champions League outings under his tutelage.
The good news is that Conte has always been his own man, and will build a team in his image. Coming off a catastrophic World Cup and with low expectations, the Lecce native has more room for manoeuvre, and more freedom to find the right mix. If Lippi and Donadoni were weighed down by (or chose to be tied to) previous successes, Conte will tread his own path.
What’s more, he has time. Even Italy’s squad in 2006 only began to show improvement late on - remember the 4-1 win over Germany in a pre-World Cup friendly?
It’s not as if the rest of Europe has made major steps in the right direction, either. France will be weighed down by home pressure, England are England, Spain could still be haunted by their showing in Brazil… you get the picture. If the Davids can be taken care of, it may just be that the Goliaths aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.