Antonio Conte feels Belgium deserve to be among the favourites win Euro 2016 as Gianluigi Buffon seeks to leave the tournament – and perhaps his international career – with no regrets.
So often among the leading contenders for major international silverware in the past, the Azzurri will play the unfamiliar role of the less-fancied team when they clash with a talented Belgium side in Lyon on Monday.
Conte, who will coach two of Belgium’s stars – Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard – when he takes over at Chelsea after the competition, was effusive in his praise of Marc Wilmots’ squad.
“Both now and for the future, they’ve got some top players with great quality and great ability,” he said.
“So congratulations to them. You just have to look not only at the starting XI but … the substitutes’ bench to see the breadth [of their quality]. They are one of the favourites to win the European Championships.”
Out to deny Belgium at Stade de Lyon will be veteran Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. The 38-year-old could be playing in his last finals for Italy and the 2006 World Cup winner acknowledged he has every right to be experiencing mixed emotions.
“That’s a correct assessment,” he said.
“However, I must confess I don’t have any feeling of nostalgia that might inhibit me. I’m simply very excited. Because at this age I’m even more aware of what it means to take part in a European Champs and have the honour of wearing the Italian national team shirt.”
Italy lost the 2012 final 4-0 to Spain and bowed out of the last World Cup in the group stage, with Buffon warning his younger team-mates to leave nothing to chance.
“All I would like is, regardless of how far we go – I really hope we don’t go home with any regrets,” he said.
“On a few of our foreign trips we’ve come away not knowing why [we lost], or questioning if we could have done better. With this in mind I think we are giving our heart and soul. We are switched on and doing everything the coach asks of us.”
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