With its 1-0 win over Sweden on Friday afternoon, Italy is officially into the knockout round of the 2016 European Championship. Just two games in, Italy has already done better than it did at the World Cup two years earlier in Brazil. The win over Sweden was nothing close to pretty. It was nothing close to exciting. And if somebody tries to tell you that, you probably need to just walk away.
But what it did do is show us, once again, how this Italian team is constructed, and what it's going to continue to have to do if it wants to move on and come close to replicating the same kind of run it had in Euro 2012.
If Sweden's success starts with how Zlatan Ibrahimovic being Zlatan Ibrahimovic, then it's pretty easy to figure out that Italy's defense full of Juventus players was going to have to be the perfect counter to that. And, on a sunny day in Toulouse, that's exactly how it played out. it was a case where maybe one of Sweden's best chances came just as the final whistle blew.
For the second straight game to open Euro 2016, Sweden finished without a shot on goal. Against Italy, Zlatan and Co. had all of four shots total. FOUR. That's a regular game for some of the strikers currently playing in this tournament. But for a whole team? That's just ... not very good at all.
But unlike on Monday when Leonardo Bonucci was the far and away standout for Italy in its win over Belgium, there was no standout performer statistically. Who led Italy in tackles, according to WhoScored? The same guy who scored the game-winning goal in the dying embers of the second half, Eder. But when it came to clearances, it was three names at the back we are so familiar with as Juventus fans — Bonucci (5), Andrea Barzagli (4) and Giorgio Chiellini (3).
As much as some may say it was the pure ineffectiveness from the Sweden squad to get the job done and not create chances, there's a big reason for that as well — Italy's defense.
Let's face it: Antonio Conte knows what the strength of his team is, and he's certainly playing to it. He's relying on the Juventus spine to led the way, and, yeah, they're certainly playing to it.
It won't do anything to help those "Italy is defensive!" narratives that we always hear about before, during and after games, but that doesn't matter at this point because it's not like the Azzurri are some kind of offensive juggernaut lighting the tournament ablaze. Conte has found the recipe for success in his team's first two group games. And no matter how unattractive or boring it may be to those who don't root for Italy or want to see football with a flair, this is how Conte is going to play his cards.
He's playing his cards absolutely right, too.
This is Italy being the most Italy to the umpteenth degree. No, the Azzurri don't have the attacking talent like the last time they won a major tournament or anything close to it. But what they do have is a world-class backline that is showing it can shut down to very different but two dangerous groups of attackers thus far.
Or we could just forget the paragraphs above and let a cartoon from the Italian sports daily by the name of La Gazzetta dello Sport do the rest of the talking for us.
I like cartoons. They make me laugh. Same goes for when Chiellini has Ibra is his pocket over the course of 90 minutes.