Usually regarded as a perennial tournament contender, Sean Sedacca explains why Italy is a shadow of its former self.
If social media chatter is anything to go by, no Italian national team has ever entered a major competition with such staggeringly low expectations from both the fans and media alike.
Dismal showings in the last two World Cups, and a false glimmer of hope prior to a drubbing in the Euro 2012 final, have left morale predictably low, but the most depressing aspect of Italy’s Euro 2016 squad seems to be the roster itself.
The feeling is that the team not only lacks an outright star, but is also missing what could be considered merely high-level talent at certain positions. In the past it was unthinkable for an Italian national team to have anything but excellent players at every starting position, with similarly top-notch alternates waiting in the wings for each spot. That is most certainly not the case this year, where several starting players are seen as the “least worst” option in their respective roles, and the general consensus is that only a handful of the current team would even have been allowed to sit on the bench 10 or 20 years ago.
The biggest area of concern is probably the midfield, where injuries have denied the Azzurri the services of Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio. These are two of Italy’s best players overall, and they would have provided a formidable core around which Conte could assemble a squad. Their absence leaves a void that was always going to be difficult to fill, but while Lazio’s Marco Paolo can do a somewhat reasonable job of taking over for Marchisio, the inexplicable decision from Antonio Conte to leave Andrea Pirlo off the team guarantees that Italy will have to play without anything even resembling a decent regista.
Which brings us to the man who will wear the number 10 jersey for Italy and the poster boy for everyone’s discontent: Thiago Motta. Let us first clarify that the widespread dislike for Motta isn’t simply down to him being Brazilian, although it certainly doesn’t help, either. Italians love Brazilian culture and admire Brazilian football, so we aren’t talking about some form of xenophobia. It’s merely a matter of pride, where requiring the services of a longstanding rival to prop-up the national team just doesn’t sit very well.
The real issue with Motta, however, is that most Italians simply don’t rate him very highly. He was seen as too slow and “macchinoso” (robotic) two years ago during the World Cup, so it’s difficult to comprehend his inclusion this time around, especially since Pirlo was pushed aside because he presumably lost a step due to age. That Motta also comes off as apathetic is just the icing on a sour cake that Italian fans are being asked to swallow as they watch a team not only viewed as unworthy, but also lacking in spirit and devotion to the maglia azzurra.
Gianluigi Buffon as the arch stone and captain of the team is a no-brainer. He remains one of the best keepers in the world, and his leadership is absolute. His only issue is fragility, but Salvatore Sirigu is a competent backup, and even third choice, Federico Marchetti is capable of filling in if needed. We should also make mention of the promising and well-liked Mattia Perin, who would probably have been given the backup role had he not injured his knee late in the season. Keep an eye out for him in the future.
If there is a bright spot in the Italian roster, it is in defense. Well, almost. The tried and tested Juventus trio of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are as competent as they come, and also very familiar with Conte’s tactics, but looking further down the list is anything but inspiring. Matteo Darmian is highly rated by Conte, but his performances with the national team have yet to thoroughly convince most fans, while Mattia De Sciglio and Angelo Ogbonna are unconvincing, period. Most would have preferred the inclusion of De Sciglio’s teammate, Giacomo Bonaventura, or even Luca Antonelli, who provided one of few positives in the latter stages of a dreadful season for AC Milan. These supporting players are especially important when one remembers that, without the usual deference shown to him by Italian referees, Chiellini’s true natural makeup of 80% footballer and 20% clumsy assassin is laid bare for the world to see, meaning suspension due to yellow or red cards is a real possibility.
As mentioned, this is the weakest part of the Italian roster, and perhaps one of the weakest midfield groups in Italy’s history. Jorginho had an excellent season with Napoli and is capable of providing some of the playmaking ability that is sorely needed without Verratti, but he was inexplicably left off the team by Conte in favor of the untried and frankly unimpressive Stefano Sturaro. Daniele De Rossi hasn’t been a top level player for the better part of 6 years, and he is now commonly referred to as an ex-player despite being only 32 years of age. Motta’s paucity has already been discussed, and while Alessandro Florenzi is certainly competent, he is also most certainly overrated and highly dependent on those around him to carry the tactical load.
On the more positive side, we start with Federico Bernardeschi, who had a great year with Fiorentina and holds considerable potential for the future. He is an entertaining player to watch and will be eager to impress on the world stage. Next come Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo, both of whom have tremendous work rates that allow them to hold their own at the very highest of levels of play. Then there is the one true star player in this midfield group: Antonio Candreva. Once considered a bust because he failed to live up to the high expectations everyone, including Juventus, held out for him, Candreva’s fortunes sunk as low as the substitute’s bench for Cesena before he resurrected his career with Lazio. For those that haven’t seen him play recently, there is a reason why his name has been linked to transfers to some of the top clubs in the world. He plays with pace, style and passion, and he is a tremendous striker of the ball. Candreva is one of the only players truly capable of creating dangerous opportunities for the Azzuri.
Another is Lorenzo Insigne. Indeed, when you talk about the attacking players Conte has selected, there is Insigne and then there are all the rest. A fundamental part of Napoli’s strong second place run, and someone Gonzalo Higuain should have been thanking profusely after every match for drawing out defenders to create space and delivering countless wonderful crosses, Insigne is a world class player and a vital source of “fantasia”.
The best hope for capitalizing on his efforts looks to be the in-form Stephan El Shaarawy, who really turned his season around after a transfer to Roma, or perhaps Ciro Immobile, who has shown flashes of brilliance in the past. The trio of Eder, Simone Zaza, and Graziano Pelle is not generating much enthusiasm among the fans, and for good reason. Ten years ago, the choices up front for Italy were Pippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta. A fantastic array of pure finishers and brilliant playmakers that understandably spoiled the fans and left the bar particularly high.
Among this year’s crop, Eder was the highest scorer in Serie A play. However, he found the back of the net just 13 times. That not only pales in comparison to Higuian’s admittedly incredible tally of 36, but also lags well behind Paolo Dybala’s 19 goals and Carlos Bacca’s 18. And of course Eder is seen as being about as Italian as Thiago Motta.
Need we say any more about the lack of expectations in Italy heading into Euro 2016?
Follow Sean Sedacca on Twitter @LazialeaNY
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