There’s no getting away from the fact that Italy have sent their weakest squad in living memory to Euro 2016. Already bereft of star quality compared to previous generations, injuries to Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio leave them severely limited in midfield, while the options in attack aren’t particularly inspiring either.
What they do possess, however, is the best coach at the tournament and players with an inherent appreciation of tactical systems and nuance. Against Belgium, they also come up against one of the most predictable and pedestrian sides in the competition - at least if the evidence of the past two years is anything to go by.
So this is a chance for Antonio Conte to demonstrate the strategical nous that sparked the rebirth of Juventus and explains why Chelsea were prepared to pay big bucks for his services next season. Having talked about preparing a "small war machine" this summer, the value here might be found in backing the Azzurri to carry out his orders with military precision.
It all starts with the Juventus backline. Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini provide a formidable base in front of the evergreen Gianluigi Buffon and they won’t have needed much schooling in the build-up, so Conte’s energy has surely focused almost exclusively on ways to get his team up the pitch and break down the Belgians.
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If Conte comes up with a cunning plan, Wilmots might lack the intuition and imagination to first anticipate, and then combat whatever it might be. And if Conte has identified a particular weak spot, it stands to reason he should look to exploit it early, then retreat. With bets on Italy/Italy half-time/full-time at 19-4 and Italy to win 1-0 at 15-2, you probably get the picture.
This might all sound a little dismissive of the individual quality in the Belgian ranks. But until they’ve actually beaten a top team and delivered a performance that equals the sum of their parts, what else are we supposed to be? There has to be some form of encouragement that stretches beyond a list of names and promising club careers.
Both teams had underwhelming qualifying campaigns but it’s a measure of Italy’s winning mentality that they finished unbeaten despite fielding 34 different players and four different systems, while six wins by a one-goal margin - comprising games against Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Malta - signifies their inclination to do no more than necessary.
Ultimately, you would expect Italy’s quality shortage to catch up with them at some point but in the opening match, on the back of three weeks preparation, this could be their defining contribution in France: a typically Italian smash-and-grab win that enables them to conserve energy for the knockout stages and play games on their own terms thereafter.
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