Conte masterclass drives Italy forward
Expectations of Italy were low heading into Euro 2016 as Antonio Conte’s men appeared to lack the firepower of old.
Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli were not selected by the Azzurri, while Claudio Marchisio was ruled out of the tournament due to injury.
As a result, Italy were left with untested options in the final third for their campaign, which were to be led by Southampton’s Graziano Pelle and Inter Milan’s Eder.
However, no one could question their dominance at the back, with Juventus trio Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellieni protecting the net along with veteran stopper Gianluigi Buffon.
The Azzurri made their intentions clear from the off in their opening match by dismantling the highest-ranked side in the tournament.
Belgium’s potent attack of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard ran into a brick wall in the form of the Italian defence, while Sunderland’s Emanuele Giaccherini put his side ahead with a neat finish.
The Red Devils huffed and puffed all evening against Conte’s men, but were forced to watch as Pelle secured the win in stoppage time, a true masterclass of defensive football from the Azzurri.
Sweden failed to break through Italy’s defences, allowing Eder to put his side into the last 16 of the Euros with a late strike in Toulouse.
Robbie Brady was the only man to score against Conte’s men during the group stage, although the 46-year-old made several changes to his team to keep his key men fit for the knockout rounds.
A tough task against Spain lay ahead for the Azzurri following Croatia’s comeback against Vicente del Bosque’s men to leave them second in Group D.
However, La Roja found life just as difficult as Belgium as they were unable to penetrate the stoic backline of Conte’s team, while Italy capitalised on their chances to dump the reigning champions out of the competition.
As a result, the Azzurri are now 6/1 in the latest Euro 2016 betting odds to kick on from the quarter-finals and win the tournament.
Conte has pulled off a masterstroke in using the strengths of his team to push his side into the latter stages, which Del Bosque and England’s Roy Hodgson were unable to match in their roles.
Italy have based their surge into the last eight around their solidity at the back, with Chiellini, Barzagli and Bonucci at the very peak of their powers.
Up front, Conte has managed to prise the best out of Giaccherini, who spent last season on loan at Bologna after being deemed surplus to requirements at Sunderland.
The 31-year-old has been a potent threat in the final third along with Pelle and Eder, displaying a high-intensity work rate to put the opposition under pressure, while being clinical enough to take the chances on offer.
Conte faces his biggest challenge yet against world champions Germany, although Die Mannschaft have never beaten Italy in a major competition.
Should the Azzurri go on to win Euro 2016, it would be a fine way for the 46-year-old to sign off his time as manager, and give Chelsea supporters hope of a return to dominance in the Premier League.