Say what you want about the talent on this Italy squad, but Antonio Conte is proving he can work wonders even with what some called the least talented roster the Azzurri has rolled out in decades.
That was once again on full display against the defending European champions in Spain on Monday night. In an absolutely phenomenal performance, Conte's Italy side disposed of Spain in a 2-0 win that got a little bit of revenge from the final four years ago where the Azzurri were throttled 4-0. There was none of that this time around, and Italy have a meeting with Germany in the quarterfinals because of it.
I guess we can throw logic out of the window.
Well, outside of these two very important facts:
- Italy's big players played just as big as they needed to be. Italy's Juventus-themed spine at the back of Gigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini were just as big time as they needed to be for Italy to be successful.
- You never count out a side managed by Antonio Conte. Never ever. He is proving, even though he's never coached in a major international tournament, that he is arguably the best manager at Euro 2016.
You put those two things together, then throw in some role players like Emanuele Giaccherini, Alessandro Florenzi and Mattia De Sciglio playing absolutely out of their minds like they did Monday and you have a result like you did against Spain — one that was certainly a long time coming.
Sure, there were more than just a few uneasy stomachs as Spain pushed forward in the final 15 minutes. Italy weren't exactly wobbling and headed toward their ultimate demise, but, unsurprisingly, it was Buffon who seemingly acted the closer, making a couple of huge saves in the latter stages to make sure that Chiellini's first-half goal stood as the game-winning tally.
It was a lot like the Belgium and Sweden games in that the defense did a lot of the grunt work, but Italy couldn't have gotten the job done if not for the collective whole doing their part as well. Conte always demands the best of his team, and they were certainly at the height of their game — especially in the first half — against Spain. That was one of the best 45 minutes of football we've seen from Italy under Conte, and they had Spain absolutely shook — and they never fully recovered from it.
They missed chances. And at times there were fears that those missed chances would loom even larger as Spain pushed forward to try and at least level the scoreline. (Nod if you had thoughts of Juventus vs. Bayern Munich in Germany from a few months back, because I know I did.)
"We showed that Italy aren't just catenaccio. The best compliment I received was from Xavi, who said that Italy remind him of Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.
"We were extraordinary. I knew these players had something special in them, something out of the ordinary. I said that before the game as it's too easy to say it now. However, we now have to turn our attention to Germany because another tough match awaits us."
- Antonio Conte after the match (via Gazzetta World)
You look around the Italy starting lineup and you can't name somebody who didn't at least have some kind of contribution. Do the same for Spain and it's crap game after crap game. You can say that Spain didn't show, and I guess that's fine. But a lot of that had to do with the way Italy played against them.
And that means there will be a new European champion in the summer of 2016. The way Italy are playing and with the performance they just put forward, I can't help but think "Why the hell not these guys?" They've obviously proven to us that they can rise to the occasion more than once against a team that's much more talented than them on paper.
The best part? These games aren't played on paper. Nobody knows that better than Conte and his players.