Italy will defend well at Euro 2016, but lack of creativity in attack is an issue
With Euro 2016 on the horizon, Mina Rzouki looks at how Italy are shaping up for the tournament this summer.
Projected starting XI
Buffon; Bonucci, Barzagli, Chiellini; Florenzi, Marchisio, Verratti, Darmian; Candreva, Zaza, El Shaarawy
Once everyone is fit and healthy, this looks like the team Antonio Conte will rely on. While it is definitely strong at the back, there's hardly an abundance of thrills going forward.
Although at this moment both Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli are struggling with injuries (the latter has even been sent back to his club), both should be available and raring to go when the tournament kicks off. Ciro Immobile also had to be replaced in the team, as he injured himself in the match against Juventus last weekend.
Even so, Marco Verratti is the only player with whom Conte should be concerned. The Paris St-Germain midfielder is the one true talent Italy have in midfield, a player who combines exquisite technique with tenacious ability, but he hasn't played the full 90 minutes of a match since early January, and he hasn't featured for the French champions at all since February. With Verratti suffering from a hamstring injury, Conte called him up for the upcoming friendlies, but the midfielder was sent back to his club to receive further treatment. One hopes he will be in good condition once the competition kicks off.
Italy has always prided itself on deploying a talented defence, one that in recent years has been complemented with a perfectly balanced midfield. Juve's backline, dubbed the "BBC," as it features Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Chiellini, are likely to be tasked with protecting Gianluigi Buffon's goal. Their synergy and experience playing together should put them in good stead going forward.
Beyond that wonderful spine to the team, Italy's only problem is they lack good options in the No. 9 role. While Simone Zaza has proved a revelation for the Old Lady this season, he has seemingly made more of an impact when coming on as a substitute than when offered the chance to start. Graziano Pelle is not the consistent performer a team such as Italy needs, while Eder, who performed well at Sampdoria, has done nothing since he arrived at Inter, even if his club team's lack of creativity isn't entirely his fault.
Scoring 16 goals in their 10 qualifying matches, La Nazionale have had problems going forward, and Conte has yet to find the right equation. Five of the Azzurri goals came against Azerbaijan, while the team toiled and laboured to score one against the likes of Bulgaria and Malta. Conte demands a lot from the team and tends to play exhaustive tactics, which could diminish the team's capabilities in front of goal. Couple that with the lack of genuine talent in the No. 9 role, and the squad might struggle to overcome well-organized defenses.
Manager's blind spot
The decision to call up Stefano Okaka in place of the injured Immobile was bizarre, to say the least, especially as other players who seem better equipped for the challenge were left behind. One such player is Pepito Rossi, who is excelling at Levante even as his club is struggling. With four goals (including a delicious one last weekend against Deportivo La Coruna) and two assists in nine appearances, perhaps the unlucky player cursed with so many injuries deserves a chance to shine for his national team.
Even stranger was the decision to leave out Sebastian Giovinco, who is dominating Major League Soccer with his vision and creativity. Although it was commendable to see Conte leave out Daniele De Rossi and Andrea Pirlo, as the duo have yet to earn the right to play for Italy this season, surely Giovinco, the player Conte always defended at Juve, has earned his chance to be an integral part of this team.
Pre-tournament focus: How will your team do?
A heavy reliance on the leaders of the Juventus squad, men who boast experience and a winning mentality, means that Italy are always a team to fear, even if they lack star quality.
Conte might have his flaws, but he creates successful sides and is admired for his ability to create a unit, as opposed to allowing individuals to shine. If Italy play as a team, sacrificing for one another in much the same way Conte's Juventus team did, they have the opportunity to reach far in the competition. One only hopes they have the energy to keep up with the demands of their ambitious coach.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.