There appears to be a healthy cautiousness amid fans ahead of Italy's second Euro 2016 game, which will be played against Sweden. Some of it is a near-superstitious worry that success rarely repeats itself. Others are concerned that the team could already be showing signs of tiredness. Arrigo Sacchi stated in yesterday's Gazzetta dello Sport editorial that Italy should beware of “psycho-physical tiredness, and the combination of stress and exceptional exertion”.
The threat of an 'athletic hangover' after the remarkable win against Belgium should certainly be taken seriously. At the same time, there are other dangers lurking ahead that the Azzurri should be conscious of.
Sweden are a physical team, with several tall players who aren't afraid of shouldering their way into a challenge. They can be expected to give the Italians very little room to manoeuvre and to break plays by fouling if necessary. Furthermore, and with third-placed teams enjoying a chance to qualify this year, not losing will be much more important for them than winning. Presumably, they will sit back and keep a low line of defence, an approach which will vastly reduce the effectiveness of Leonardo Bonucci's long overhead balls.
Italy's current system depends heavily on other teams bringing the game to them. The jackhammer work of Daniele De Rossi just in front of the BBC defensive line (Italy's own version of the Maginot) means that the opponents' central passing lanes are all shut down. Watching Belgium circulate the ball on Monday as they attempted to find an opening evidenced a broad U-shaped pattern, with passes going up one flank, then having to be sent back down as they came to the middle, then up again as they went towards the other flank. Aside from keeping the Belgians out of the box, it compelled their central midfielders to hang farther back than they normally would in relation to the wingers and strikers, opening a space that the Azzurri could exploit when they regained possession.
None of this is going to apply against Sweden for the simple reason that the Scandinavians won't be pressing in the same way. Instead, they are bound to employ Italy's tactics against them, resiling from the possession game and looking to take advantage of their opponents' errors. Breaking down a team that plays like that requires abundant creativity and/or raw power in the attack, and Italy possess neither.
It is this writer's personal prediction that unless Conte introduces variations into his system (more on this in a moment), then the most likely outcome is going to be a draw.
To be more detailed, the two teams have approximately the same odds of taking the lead, probably at some point after the half-hour mark, at which point it's going to turn into a conservative give-'em-nothing game. If Italy are the ones to score first, then they'll have a better shot at defending the score, but there is still a very real chance that Sweden will equalise – especially with the attacking talent of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. If Sweden take the lead, then Italy have good odds of coming back and making it a draw, but probably too late in the game to turn it into a win.
Of course, the limit of this forecast is that it assumes a linear development for the game. And as anyone who's watched at least three football games could tell you, this is a sport in which an early penalty, a direct red card or a defensive blooper can change the flow of things both quickly and arbitrarily. So, easy on the online betting, Marty McFly.
With that in mind, once you rule out the vagaries, Italy-Sweden pits two systems that will cancel each other out, and not enough talent on either side to tip the scales.
The caveat is that Italy's system can change, in ways that are more than enough to give them an edge. One option, for example, is to field Stephan El Shaarawy on the left wing instead of Matteo Darmian or Mattia De Sciglio. This would preserve the Azzurri's overall shape, while giving them a stronger imprint going forward.
Another possibility involves replacing one of the two strikers seen against Belgium with Lorenzo Insigne, which reduces penetration power in favour of unpredictability and improved technical execution. Neither Insigne nor El Shaarawy have to come in as starters, but the sheer presence of one of them on the pitch is enough to turn an Italy win into the favourite result. And there are no doubt many other ways of modifying the system that Conte can think of.
None of this may be necessary, granted. Conte could choose to play exactly the same system, perhaps changing a few workhorse midfielders to add fresh legs and stamina, and hope that Italy are the first to score a goal. Fortuna audaces iuvat, as his illustrious ancestors used to say, and if Italy can defend their lead, the gamble will have paid off. Make no mistake about what it is, though. It's a gamble.
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