Italy remain unbeaten in qualifying and their relatively lowly Fifa ranking does not reflect the quality of players available to Antonio Conte.
We have said it before but it is worth repeating – Italy’s qualification for Euro 2016 is a clear case of “mission accomplished”, with a minimum of fuss . Italy wrapped up their qualification last Saturday night with a facile 3-1 away win against Azerbaijan to remain top of a Group H in which they have been more effective than spectacular.
To some extent, t’was ever thus. Good Italian teams do what they have to do and often little else. Suspicion is that this is becoming a “good” Italian team. With a record of six wins and three draws, 14 goals scored and six conceded, Antonio Conte’s new look Italy has not put a foot wrong. Better still, against the Azeris, Italy gave one of their best performances of the group.
Mind you, given that Italy currently stand 17th in FIFA’s world rankings whilst Azebaijan are on 105th, you would expect the Italians to dominate. However, two considerations are worth underlining. In this second Euro 2016 weekend of the autumn, Italy inevitably looked a lot sharper and more hungry than in their 1-0 wins against Malta and Bulgaria last month.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Conte’s Italy has developed a definite “template” based not just on “obvious” choices such as the Juventus trio of Gigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci in defence or Lazio’s Antonio Candreva in attack. Players like Italo-Brazilian Eder, Stephan El Shaaraway and Graziano Pellé in attack, schemer Marco Verratti in midfield and full backs Mattia Di Sciglio and Matteo Darmian are now in the template too.
Without doubt one of the most encouraging Italian performances against Azerbaijan came from PSG star Verratti, the player who for years now has been designated as the natural heir of the peerless Andrea Pirlo. At 36 years of age and having moved off to the MSL in the USA, Pirlo is obviously getting to the end of his international road even though, until now, Conte has included him in his squads.
The point about Verratti, though, is that against both Azerbaijan last weekend and against Bulgaria last month, he looked a much better player when left to orchestrate midfield on his own, without the pyschologically heavy presence alongside him of Pirlo, who missed out both games. Verratti is not a carbon copy of Pirlo (who could be?) since he tends to be play further forward than the deep lying Pirlo. Yet with a solid midfielder behind him (Marco Parolo on Saturday but it could be Marchisio or De Rossi in future), he is a highly effective, attacking number 10, scheming behind the front men. If Conte plays both men against Norway in their final group game tomorrow night, we may get another chance to see if Pirlo and Verratti can happily “co-habit”.
As for the front men, Conte seems to have settled for a “littl’un and big’un” attack in which big central target man Pellé is partnered by the fast, mobile Eder. With Candreva on one wing and El Shaaraway on the other, too, Italy always have the option of knocking in the cross for Pellé.
Even if Italy are already qualified for Euro 2016, tomorrow night’s game against Norway in the Olympic Stadium, Rome is no academic affair. It matters desperately to the Norwegians for whom a defeat or indeed even a draw could send them to the play-offs with Croatia (away to Malta tomorrow) moving second.
The Norwegians, too, can forget any notion that Italy will be in “relax” mode. For a start, Antonio Conte does not do “relax”. For a second, even if a draw will suffice to see Italy win the group outright, Conte wants to win this game just to make a point about the current UEFA and FIFA rankings and in the process boost Italy’s claims for one of the six first round Group seed positions next summer in France. Speaking on Saturday night, Conte made his point:
“Croatia is ranked higher than us but they are (four points) behind us in third in our group. I find it hard to understand certain calculations…Even the FIFA rankings are strange. It is absurd that Argentina top the rankings even though they have won nothing. We lost a friendly against Portugal last summer…and that defeat could yet cost us dear”.