Antonio Conte appears to be on the right lines as he prepares his team for next summer's finals.
In Italy, as elsewhere all over the world, the shadow of the horrendous events in Paris last Friday night hung over the entire weekend, making itself felt even on the football pitch. This being a weekend for Euro 2016 play-offs and for international friendlies, there was no Serie A programme in Italy.
However, Italy’s Serie B (2nd Division) witnessed a whole gamut of gestures, essentially expressing solidarity with France and the French. For a start, all games were preceded by a rendition of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, whilst French flags and “PrayForParis” banners abounded.
One Serie B team, Ternana, played with the French flag woven into their team shirts whilst Brescia midfielder Leonardo Morosini celebrated his goal in a 3-0 win over Trapani by rushing across to the sideline, pulling out a French flag and carrying it enthusiastically around the pitch.
Speaking for the institutions of Italian sport, Giovanni Malago, head of the Italian Olympic movement, CONI, telephoned French sports Minister Dennis Masseglia to say that, rather than consider postponing the Euro 2016 finals in France or moving them to another venue, they should and must go ahead in France because “sport is one of the few instruments available, capable of bringing peoples together and overcoming divisions”.
In such a context, it is difficult to concentrate minds fully on the national team but the weekend did provide us with one extremely interesting friendly when Italy travelled to Belgium to face the current FIFA ranked No.1 team at the King Baudouin stadium. This, of course, is a venue that will be forever associated with its previous name, the Heysel Stadium, site of the disaster in which 39 people, mainly Italians and Juventus fans, were killed after a stadium wall collapsed prior to the start of the 1985 European Cup final, eventually won by Juventus.
By way of tribute to the victims of that disaster, the game was halted in the 39th minute for a moment’s silence. Little did the authorities, fans and players realise that as they were commemorating one tragedy, an even bigger one was unfolding down the road in Paris and a tragedy, too, which had a sporting connection. After all, if the IS terrorists’ plan to get into the Stade de France for the France v Germany friendly had worked out as intended, then we might have been looking at untold slaughter. As it was, the two ISIS suicide bombers who were blocked at the entrance to the ground, ended up “self-detonating” outside the stadium, killing one person.
As for the Belgian v Italy friendly, the final result of the game, a 3-1 win for Belgium, by no means tells the whole story. In front after just three minutes, through Antonio Candreva, Italy more than matched Belgium for the first hour of an entertaining game.
Sloppy Italian defending allowed Tottenham midfielder, Jan Vertonghen, in for a soft equaliser from a 13th minute corner to leave the half-time scoreline at 1-1. However, a Conte-style, aggressive Italy had taken the Belgians by surprise, with Candreva and Alessandro Florenzi on the wings and Brazilian Eder and Graziano Pellé in central attack all combining more than well.
Midway through the second half, Eder had the chance to put Italy ahead when he struck the bar and then narrowly failed to head home the rebound, following an excellent pass from substitute Roberto Soriano. Had they taken the lead, Italy would have stolen nothing.
As it was, Italy wilted just a little in the last half hour, with Leonardo Bonucci making a most untypical defensive error to set up a 75th minute goal for Kevin De Bruyne. Then, in the 83rd minute, substitute Michy Batshuayi finished the game off with a well taken goal, created by pure magic from Yannick Carrasco.
Batshuayi’s goal and Belgium’s final half hour indicated just why this side currently stands number one in world rankings. However, for at least the first hour, Conte’s Italy had clearly indicated that they are not that far behind. Once again, as often with Italian teams in the Champions League, Italy appeared to not quite last out the distance of a high-tempo, aggressive game.
When the Campionato resumes this weekend, it does so with Italy’s very own “clasico”, namely Juventus v Milan on Saturday night. When these two teams meet in Serie A, usually one or the other is on top of the table. On Saturday, they come into the game in 6th and 7th respectively, with Milan two points clear of Juve on 20 and seven behind joint leaders Fiorentina and Inter Milan.
With less than a third of the season gone, everything is still to play for, meaning that this will be a game in which points matter desperately. Both sides have hit some decent recent form – witness Milan’s 3-0 defeat of Lazio and Juve’s two league wins over Torino and Empoli – but both can still stutter. The sensation remains however that, despite their table standings, Milan are the more fragile of the pair whilst the new format “Old Lady” is finally beginning to rev her powerful engines. Stand by for a fascinating game.