Italian expectations were lower than ever before heading into Euro 2016, with some even going as far as to say the current crop of players are quite possibly among the worst ever to have worn the Azzurri jersey.
But, after a sublime performance saw them beat Belgium 2-0 to begin the tournament – with Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle scoring superb goals – Italy went from looking like also-rans to possible contenders.
Friday’s display against Sweden was confirmation that Antonio Conte’s men should probably not be regarded as one of the teams to beat, though, irrespective of their second win.
Against Belgium, the Euro 2012 finalists were able to play their beloved counter-attacking game as Marc Wilmots’ men left plenty of space in behind their defence, largely allowing Italy to sit back and soak up pressure.
Sweden had no intentions of making the same mistake as Belgium. Erik Hamren’s side needed a win to get back on track after their underwhelming draw against Republic of Ireland on matchday one, but refused to take any major risks in Toulouse.
Their gameplan ruthlessly exposed Italy’s biggest weakness, a startling lack of creativity both in midfield and attack.
Throughout the years, Italy have been able to call on superstars such as Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti in attack. At Euro 2016, Conte starts with Graziano Pelle and Eder up front, while holding midfielder Thiago Motta wears the coveted number 10 jersey.
There’s no denying Pelle is a useful striker if utilised in the right way, but the Southampton forward is not the type of to create something from out of nowhere. Eder, meanwhile, is woefully out of form – despite his well-taken goal – and still has some way to go to justify Conte’s decision to give him the nod.
It is not a coincidence Mario Balotelli was still in with a shout of making Italy’s squad for the Euros after a hugely disappointing 2015-16 campaign.
The Liverpool striker showed at Euro 2012 that he is a force to be reckoned with on his day. Unfortunately for Italy, Balotelli has seldom produced the goods since that man-of-the-match performance versus Germany four years ago.
Balotelli’s inability to fulfil his potential and the lack of alternatives who possess similar creativity leaves Italy with a major headache.
Antonio Candreva has been their only player who has consistently looked threatening, but the Lazio star cannot do it all on his own. Conte, however, seems to be reluctant to introduce one of Stephan El Shaarawy or Lorenzo Insigne to add some flair to his XI.
There’s no denying Italy have one of the best defences around at the Euros, but their inability to break down a backline not as naive as Belgium’s makes it unlikely they will go all the way.
Friday’s victory was enough to make it through to the knock-out stages, but hopes of a second European title still look extremely slim.
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