Given the circumstances on Tuesday evening, you would be forgiven for forgetting there was another group match to be played. Even the morning newspapers did, focusing more on the fact Italy had been dealt a tough Round of 16 draw against defending champions Spain than the upcoming encounter with Republic of Ireland.
That’s because the Azzurri had already been assured a first place finish in Group E. Not since Euro 2000 had Italy faced a dead rubber contest at a major tournament. It’s atypical for the four-time world champions, who always seem to scrape by. Gianluigi Buffon admitted Italy winning the group with one match to spare “is not normal.”
And the Azzurri, much changed from the victory over Sweden, played like a side with nothing on the line. Even with Antonio Conte’s insistence his side was in Lille to win, his eight changes from last Friday told its own tale.
Salvatore Sirigu, Angelo Ogbonna, Thiago Motta, Federico Bernardeschi, Stefano Sturaro and Ciro Immobile all made their first start of Euro 2016, second half substitutes Lorenzo Insigne and Stephan El Shaarawy their tournament debut. It wasn’t an inherently bad decision to make changes. If ever there was a time for Conte to take a look at his squad players, this was it.
But unlike Croatia B – the ‘reserve’ side which topped Group D to send Spain on a collision course with the Azzurri – Conte’s new boys could not exhibit the same confidence their neighbours to the east displayed in downing the previously impressive Spanish.
The Irish were playing for their tournament lives. A win and progression was theirs. They harassed Italy. Balls were whipped into the penalty area at will. It led to battle after battle. Ireland’s intensity was impressive and Martin O’Neill’s team had the better chances throughout.
Meanwhile, Italy did not find much joy in the final third. Nor did they get a foothold on proceedings until well after half-time. The introduction of Matteo Darmian and Insigne helped shift the balance in their favour. But Italian passing was poor, even allowing for the chopped-up pitch. The strikers had little to work with as those behind could rarely fashion an opportunity.
The question is, did Conte get enough from the new brigade? He says yes. “I got some good responses from those who haven’t played as much.” There just wasn’t much. Insigne did well when he came on and nearly broke the deadlock with a curling shot – similar to Eder’s goal against Sweden – that cracked the post. Simone Zaza put himself about, but he and Immobile fed on scraps. Ogbonna was the best of the defensive bunch.
One player who wasn’t rested – and given his yellow card situation should have been – was Leonardo Bonucci. Captain in Buffon’s absence, he didn’t enjoy the most comfortable evening. The yellow card hanging over Bonucci’s head could not have helped. But when it came to Robbie Brady’s 85th minute winner both he and Sirigu share the blame. Bonucci lost his man. The Paris Saint-Germain custodian failed to attack the cross with any real commitment and was beaten to the ball. The goal resulted in Italy’s first competitive loss under Conte. Fortunately, Bonucci did not pick up a second caution of the tournament.
The word emanating from the squad is Monday will be different. Conte believes his players will be up to the task. “Playing against Spain must give us a great deal of enthusiasm and we have to play like we did against Belgium, against a side that on paper is superior.” They agree. Motta and Insigne say Italy are confident. Sirigu thinks there will be greater mental preparation for a match of this magnitude.
Did Conte get what he was after? There were bits and pieces. As against Sweden it was a performance that raised more questions than answers, even if it's difficult to judge an Italian side with little to play for. Only Insigne’s outing could tempt the boss into making a personnel change against Spain. Others fell short. In the grand scheme, the Azzurri went in knowing first place was sewn up. That allowed for experimentation, but what Italy must ensure is that their confidence is not shaken by this defeat.
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