ITALY: WE WILL WIN EURO 2016
The coach is set to join Chelsea following the conclusion of the international tournament and the Azzurri will hope to give the 46-year-old the perfect send-off in France
Beaten finalists last time around, Italy will hope to go one better in France and give Antonio Conte a glorious send off before their coach leaves to take charge of Premier League side Chelsea.
Although his side were not always entirely convincing during an unbeaten qualifying campaign, Conte is a tactically flexible coach who is certainly capable of leading a talented squad – although one that perhaps lacks the star quality of past years – into the latter stages.
The evergreen Gianluigi Buffon remains one of Europe’s finest goalkeepers and set a new Serie A record with champions Juventus this season for the longest amount of time without conceding a league goal.
The 38-year-old went unbeaten for 973 minutes and the 2006 World Cup winner will be keen to add another international medal to his collection as his phenomenal career – in theory – winds down.
Conte won three consecutive scudetti with Juventus and the Old Lady’s most reliable performers remain his trusted lieutenants for the national team.
Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli could all line up in front of club colleague Buffon if Conte opts for his favoured 3-4-3 formation, with Angelo Ogbonna another who is accustomed to the system.
Italy face some serious concerns in midfield, however.
The loss of Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti has robbed Conte of his star midfield pairing, and Daniele De Rossi has been bothered by an Achilles problem in recent weeks. Veteran Thiago Motta is included in the squad despite worries over his fitness, but there is no room for Jorginho, who had an excellent season with Napoli, or rising star Marco Benassi, underlining Conte’s preference for experience.
Italy are not so well served in terms of central attacking options.
Four years ago, Mario Balotelli suggested a coming of age when his brace beat Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-final, before he reverted to type and played his way out of the international picture over the course of two dismal seasons, although the return to prominence of his former Milan team-mate Stephan El Shaarawy at Roma is timely for Conte.
Graziano Pelle top scored in qualifying and his goal against Norway in the final match secured top spot in Group H, although the Southampton man does not look like a Euro-winning centre-forward in waiting. Neither does Eder, who scored just once for Inter last season after joining on loan from Sampdoria.
It might leave Conte looking towards the more livewire talent of Simone Zaza for inspiration, while two men on either side of the Roma-Lazio divide – Alessandro Florenzi and Antonio Candreva – will be relied upon to supply ammunition from the wings.
Italy get their campaign up and running with a tricky Group E opener against Belgium, before taking on Sweden and Republic of Ireland – potentially easier tasks, on paper at least.
It is now 48 years since their sole European Championship triumph, but if they can negotiate that group unscathed they will have an outside chance of ending that long wait for title number two.