A Coach with one eye on the exit door? Check. A nagging sense that some of the nation’s best young talents will spend the tournament on the beach or the sofa? Check. Murmurs that the final squad of 23 is the worst to ever represent the country at a major competition? Check.
Yes, Euro 2016 is here, and it wouldn’t be an international tournament if Italy didn’t arrive under something of a cloud. The difference this year, however, is that there’s no sense of the Azzurri playing possum to lower their rivals’ guards, no headline-grabbing scandal that somehow unites the players and inspires them to unlikely heroics.
No, there’s a simple reason that the odds on Gigi Buffon getting his hands on the Henry Delaunay trophy early next month are as wide as 18/1 with some bookmakers: quality, or lack thereof.
The final 23 selected by CT Antonio Conte contains Juventus’ fourth choice striker (Simone Zaza), a modestly talented midfield all-rounder who picked up his first cap only last Monday (Stefano Sturaro) and a number of others who spent large portions of the season on the bench at their clubs.
What it doesn’t include is Jorginho, Roberto Soriano, Riccardo Saponara, Domenico Berardi, Franco Vazquez or Andrea Belotti, all young and young-ish attacking players that might - just might - have been capable of adding some of the X factor the actual squad appears to be sorely lacking in.
That said, the reaction to Conte’s omissions has been slightly overblown. The aforementioned six are decent players that will improve with time, but can anyone honestly look at the list and say they see another Totti or Del Piero in there?
Study Cesare Prandelli’s Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 squads and you’ll see names that induce the same cringing sensation you get when you dig an old, out-of-fashion football strip out the back of a cupboard. Antonio Nocerino? Gabriel Paletta? Ugh…
The difference is that during Prandelli’s reign Italy had a much more distinct identity and style of play. There was a sense of a wider project not just predicated on the outcome of each individual tournament, of Prandelli using La Nazionale as a vehicle for positive change in Italian society as a whole.
Of course, with hindsight, looking at how Prandelli’s side floundered embarrassingly in Brazil and the way many of the supposed stars of tomorrow have fallen by the wayside, a lot of these ideas now look like pipe dreams, yet they provided a reassurance about the long-term direction of the Azzurri that simply isn’t there now.
For the nation’s football fans to have ended up in the same collective headspace they were in before World Cup 2010, with Conte seemingly harbouring the same aversion Marcello Lippi had to young players and the same habit of equating big personalities with troublemakers, is pretty depressing.
In fairness to the Chelsea boss-in-waiting, some of the causes of the negativity are out of his hands. It’s not his fault that Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti picked up serious injuries, ripping the heart out of his midfield, or that Andrea Pirlo went to play in MLS, or that Mario Balotelli’s career, which always seemed balanced on a see-saw between brilliance and buffoonery, has swung definitively in the latter direction.
What can be laid at his door are the side’s tactics and personnel, and as of now that’s arguably the biggest cause for concern.
3-5-2 is a formation lots of Italian sides have found success with in recent years, Conte’s Juve among them, but you need the right players for it. The Azzurri don’t have one confident, in-form striker at present, never mind two, and the system also places a lot of responsibility on the understaffed, uninspiring central midfield area. Moreover, it’s a system that marginalises wingers Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Stephan El Shaarawy and Alessandro Florenzi - the only exciting, unpredictable players in the entire 23.
In spite of all of this though, there remains a ray of hope, if no other reason than the fact that none of the traditional powers look in especially fearsome form going into this competition.
“We were realistic - we were not the best team in the Euros,” recalled Jurgen Klinsmann of Germany’s Euro 96 win in a BBC documentary earlier this week. “But we had an amazing chemistry, an amazing willingness to suffer.”
That’s exactly the kind of attitude Conte has to inject into his similarly limited squad for them to prosper, and his experience of doing just that with the Juventus side that lifted the 2011 Scudetto without losing a single game along the way suggests it might not be as unthinkable as it seems at first glance.
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