Veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon says Italy are ready to prove their critics wrong when they take on Belgium at Euro 2016 on Monday.
A rare shortage of elite talent in creative positions has seen some observers, particularly among the country’s demanding media, label Antonio Conte’s squad the worst Azzurri side in living memory.
The absence of injured duo Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio, together with Major League Soccer-based pair Andrea Pirlo and Sebastian Giovinco being overlooked for selection, has left Italy looking particularly threadbare in midfield roles.
Further forward, striking options Simone Zaza, Ciro Immobile, Graziano Pelle, Eder and Lorenzo Insigne do not inspire fear in the manner of some of their predecessors.
But Buffon, who won the 2006 World Cup and reached the final of Euro 2012, is adamant the Azzurri are equipped to defy their doubters in France.
“I don’t need to respond to what people have said. Occasionally you [the media] are really the hammer and we are the anvil but we are not sacrificial lambs,” he said, when asked about unfavourable pre-tournament comments on the team’s quality.
“Whatever you might see on paper, you’ll see the real outcome on the field.
“We have a chance to show what we can do on the pitch. Despite the fact we won’t start as one of the favourites, we will still be a competitive side.”
For all the doubts about their attack, Italy may gain an advantage from the injury crisis affecting their first opponents, with Belgium missing several defenders – including captain Vincent Kompany.
Conte, though, offered a reminder of the quality counterpart Marc Wilmots will still have at his disposal when the sides clash in Group E at Stade de Lyon.
“It’s you guys who have spoken about that,” the Italy boss said in reference to Belgium’s key absentees.
“I look at their backline and see Thibaut Courtois, who plays for Chelsea, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld of Tottenham and Thomas Vermaelen, who plays for Barcelona.
“The [remaining] full-back, we still don’t know who will start. Quite honestly, I think this is a side with very few weaknesses.
“Going forward, [they have] a lot of talent and powerful individuals in the middle of the park. And at the back they’ve got a lot of experienced defenders who play for top clubs.”