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Are expectations too high for Italy entering the Euro 2020 knockout stage?

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Italy is in the midst of a monumental run, but with a tougher path ahead, is it time to dial back the hype train?

Italy v Switzerland - UEFA Euro 2020: Group A Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

It has been a historic stretch for the Italian national team, even dating back to the pre-COVID era which now seems like 15 years ago. Alas, that somehow all started just last year, but Italy’s run under Roberto Mancini is still incredibly impressive.

The team has lost just two matches since Mancini took the job, and the last one came all the way back in September 2018 when Portugal got the job done in a Nations League match. Since then, Italy has played 30 matches without a defeat and is now the hottest team in Europe.

That was reflected in the Euro 2020 group stage, as Italy walked out unscathed with the highest goal differential in the tournament through three games. And while there was some hype around Italy before the Euros began, it has shot through the roof now with many calling them the new favorites for the tournament.

Italy has moved up to the third favorite in many sportsbooks, still listed behind France and England but with the gap closing drastically since the first game and Azzurri are even listed ahead of England in some places. While some of the other top teams have shown clear signs of weakness somewhere on the pitch, people are turning to Italy as the team who may have played the three most complete matches of the tournament so far.

So how warranted is the praise for Italy? Sure, they have tied the national team record for longest unbeaten run and they are favorites to extend that streak when they meet up with Austria in London on Saturday.

But it’s still hard to see them cruising past some of the stronger and more talented teams in the tournament even with the struggles the others have had so far. And the bracket certainly does not look very kind.

Italy may be favorites in the first game, but Austria will be no slouch. The Austrians finished with six points in the group stage, the most among all second-place finishers.

But even assuming Italy gets past the Round of 16, they will be stuck playing against either the No. 1 team in the FIFA world rankings or the No. 5 team. Meanwhile, two other quarterfinal fixtures are guaranteed to feature a team ranked 16th or lower.

If you still feel confident about Italy’s chances to that point, the team would then have to go through tournament favorites in France (or at least whoever beats France) before even reaching the final. That’s not an easy path for a team that was well down the list of favorites just two weeks ago.

And even though there is a growing popularity in picking Italy, there are still doubters. Italy may appear to be a complete team at times but there are also some concerns over the creativity between the midfield and the attack, which many considered to be their weakness entering the tournament.

“I think the first two games were easy. I don’t think they’ve been really tested,” former Arsenal and France midfielder Patrick Vieira told ITV Sport after Italy’s win over Switzerland. “They have a lack of intensity, power and pace to be even more dangerous going forward. I think it’s a bit too early to take Italy into consideration that they can go until the end.”

However, if you use your eyes, it’s not that hard to see plenty of good things happening in the attack for Italy. There is pace, there’s explosiveness and there’s plenty of contribution from the midfield. Italy has proven they can attack in multiple ways. I know it’s hard to talk about Italy without thinking of Juventus players, but Chelsea’s Jorginho has been excellent in the midfield and it’s been about more than just retaining possession as he leads the team with passes completed in the attacking half per 90 minutes, according to The Analyst.

And while Jorginho may not exactly be the creative midfielder people want to see linking to the attack, he does just enough to allow the Italian wingers to be the creative ones from the edge of the box when they get a chance.

Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi — I know, sorry, guys — leads Italy with six chances created and has accumulated 1.1 xA through three matches. Add that to the creativity we know Lorenzo Insigne and the Wings of Fede are capable of (there you go) and it’s hard to say Italy will not be dangerous enough going forward.

The attack may be more fun now and it’s certainly closing the gap to be the identity of the team but realistically, the defense is still what makes Italy thrive. And in the team’s record 11-match winnings streak, they have yet to allow a goal. I’m sure some people are tired of hearing about Italy’s streaks but also that’s pretty absurd.

The short answer to the question is no. Italy has earned the hype through their play and that hype should lead to higher expectations. It may not be entirely fair to them because the upcoming stretch won’t be easy and there could be an early exit that will be considered disappointing. But no matter what, the current form has put Italy in a warranted spot as one of the tournament’s favorites.