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Hard Work Paying Dividends for Conte’s Azzurri

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Analyzing Antonio Conte's selections and performance at Euro 2016.

All the pre-Euro 2016 questions levied at Antonio Conte were answered emphatically during Italy’s 2-0 defeat of defending champions Spain in the Round of 16.

With no Marco Verratti, how can you not take Andrea Pirlo? Eder with one goal in 2016 to start in attack? How does MLS record breaker Sebastian Giovinco not make the cut, with a dearth of attacking options? How can you possibly give the number 10 shirt to Thiago Motta? Can you really be committed to La Nazionale when you have already agreed to take over Chelsea following the tournament?

The former Juventus coach barked orders from his technical area for the full 90 minutes plus stoppage time, ordering his forwards to press, directing his players into positions, and leading his men to a surprise victory. His commitment and passion were on show for the world to see, as he hung on the dugout to celebrate a la Gianluigi Buffon.

Thiago Motta was sacrilegiously given the number 10 shirt, with Italy’s fantasista Lorenzo Insigne handed 20 and Eder 17. One can only assume that Conte forfeited the individual importance attached with calcio’s famous number 10 shirt to adopt a greater group mentality.

Positionally, Eder has taken the role of the number 10. His work rate and physicality are on a different level to both Giovinco and Insigne. And to date, he has delivered the goods: his free-kick helped break the Spanish deadlock, and his late Baggio-esque winner saw off Sweden.

The pace, athleticism, and endeavour shown by Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini, either side of Gladiatore Daniele De Rossi, have fully vindicated Conte’s decision to allow Pirlo to watch the games at home in his slippers.

The questions have all been answered.

The ideas were presented in Italy’s opener against Belgium, the highest ranked team heading into the tournament (2nd). But they are not Spain, they have not knocked Italy out of the past two European Championships and a Confederation’s Cup. And ultimately, the Belgians have won nothing and have not made a podium in any major international competition in the past 36 years.

Spain may not have been at the formidable level of a few years prior, but they were over 75% favourites to beat Italy with some bookmakers, and had a full complement of stars to call on.

Italy on the other hand were minus their three most creative midfielders: Verratti, Claudio Marchisio, and Antonio Candreva. Four years ago, Italy’s front two -Eder and Graziano Pelle- were playing alongside each other in Serie B for Sampdoria. Giaccherini is on loan at Bologna from Premier League strugglers Sunderland, whilst Parolo’s form had dipped along with Lazio’s, who finished a mediocre 8th place in Serie A this campaign.

Still, from start to finish Italy moved through the gears and adapted through the different phases of the game, with Conte pulling the strings. Pelle and Eder pressed the Spanish defenders into erratic passes when the Spanish sat deep, then tracked back later in the game to help defend when the Spanish pushed further forward. Giaccherini and Parolo ran marathons. Mattia De Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi defended and attacked with courage and conviction.

All over the pitch Italy worked harder. Although the hardest working player may have been David De Gea, who was forced to replicate his club form just to keep Spain in the tournament, with several top shelf saves to deny Pelle, Giaccherini, and Eder.

The Bianconeri back three could hardly take the night off, with concentration a necessity to deny Spain the openings they searched for. Gerard Pique eventually ghosted in-between them in the final minute for a rare Spanish chance, but his precise goal-bound header was kept out by Italy’s 160 capped legend Buffon.

Moments later, Conte’s substitutes combined to help finish the Spanish off. Insigne’s perfectly weighted cross-field pass found the unmarked Matteo Darmian on the edge of La Roja’s box, and his deflected cross was met by Pelle who mimicked his opening day volley against Belgium to secure Italy’s passage into the quarter finals.

Waiting for the Azzurri will be the World Champions Germany, who will provide a completely different challenge from Spain.

Nevertheless, Conte has fulfilled his mission to restore pride back into the Azzurri jersey. What awaits next will be faced with a hard-working, passion filled, and tactically aware side; a Conte side that will give every ounce of energy for their country and the tifosi.