After his team impressed in their opening game victory over Belgium, Antonio Conte's biggest job has been keeping his players feet on the ground.
In the Italian camp, the word is Keep Your Feet On the Ground. As Italy prepare to face Sweden in Toulouse in their second first round game on Friday, the Italians and above all their talented coach, Antonio Conte, are trying to fly below the radar. Given that some 15.5 millions Italians (one third of the population) watched and enthused over that impressive opening match 2-0 win against Belgium in Lyon, flying below the radar is just a little difficult.
Within minutes of that win, Conte was urging people to remember the last World Cup. Italy won their first game against England, all right, but then they went kaput and straight out of the tournament. At a morning-after press conference on Wednesday, Lazio’s Antonio Candreva repeated the message:
“It’s much too early to be making calculations about whether it would suit us better to finish second or to win this group, we’ve only played one game…”
When team mate Alessandro Florenzi was told by a Swedish journalist that a Swedish opinion had rated Italy the best side of the tournament so far, the Roma player just smiled and replied:
“We’re happy to hear about this opinion poll, it is very flattering but before the tournament lots of commentators were saying that we were not up to much…”
In the immediate aftermath of Monday’s game, Conte put those who had not played against Belgium through another heavy training session in Montpellier. He then, as is his won, sat down to analyse the Italian performance via the TV replay. Doubtless he will have found fault with some aspects of his team’s performance, faults that will clearly be highlighted to his players. The point for Conte is that this is just the “beginning of a long road” and whatever else, this is most definitely not the moment to take your foot of the accelerator. At his eve of match press conference in Toulouse, Conte himself repeated the concept, saying:
“We’ve got to have a fire in our bellies, a fire that stimulates us and inspires us to overcome all the obstacles on our road. Tomorrow (Friday), we have an important game against Sweden and we’ve got to be prepared and ready to play our best game.
“We’ve done what we had to do – recover our energies and at the same time prepare for this game. The one thing that we haven’t yet done is qualify for the next round. Tomorrow we have the chance to do that”
Asked what team he intended to field against Sweden, the Italian coach suggested that there “won’t be many changes”. Indeed, the old adage about sticking with a winning side clearly applies.
In reality, perhaps the only change that Conte will make will be to replace left back cum left sided midfielder Matteo Darmian of Man United with either AC Milan’s Mattia De Sciglio or Roma’s Florenzi. Otherwise, we would expect things to be much the same with Torino’s Ciro Immobile and PSG’s Thiago Motta both on standby to come on as second half subs, as they did against Belgium.
Inevitably, much of the Italian media preparation for this game has focussed on an old acquaintance, the Swedish talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a man who won league titles in Italy with both Juventus and Internazionale between 2004 and 2009. Conte is much too smart to play down the talented Swede, saying:
“He is a more mature player now…The Swedes look to him as the leader, you can see that from the way they play. We’ve got to be very careful with a player like him, a guy who can turn a game upside down…”
On the eve of this tournament, Conte said that the “sensations” were good. It could be that he was trying to think positive. Or indeed, it could be that he suspected that this might prove to be a tournament with few really outstanding teams. In that case, as the Belgium win proved, Italy is always ready to step up to the plate. This next game against Sweden should tell us a deal more about just how “outstanding” or otherwise this Italy really is. This could be continuation of Great Things and that Swedish opinion poll could indeed be correct.
Italy (3-5-2): Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Candreva, Parolo, De Rossi, Giaccherini, De Sciglio; Eder, Pellé.
Sweden (4-4-2): Isaksson; Lindelöf, Granqvist, Johansson, Olsson; Larsson, Lewicki, Källström, Forsberg; Guidetti, Ibrahimović.