An Italian job

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column-rick olivaresFOLLOWING Spain’s 2-0 loss to Italy in the Round of 16, La Roja Coach Vicente del Bosque resigned. And with his departure ends, perhaps, Spain’s best era ever in football becoming the second team after France to win the World Cup (2010) and the European championship (2012) one after the other (although Spain bests the French, 1998 World Cup and 2000 European champions, by also winning the 2008 Euros).

Italy’s victory somewhat avenges their 4-0 loss to Spain in the finals of Euro 2012.

The question now is, “Are the Italians for real? Do they have a legitimate shot at winning the European championship; something they have not achieved since 1968?”

I will say this for the Azzurri—when they are favored to win it all, they come crashing down; when they aren’t seeded, they play well. So this team plays better without expectations. And, perhaps, a refreshing chance, playing better without sandal preceding them.

During the 1982 World Cup campaign, star forward Paolo Rossi and several other players were prosecuted for illegal betting and match fixing. Yet, the Azzurri defeated West Germany in the finals for their third World Cup.

Before the 2006 World Cup, Italy was hounded by match-fixing allegations that saw Juventus dropped to Serie B and the taking back of their trophies. Despite all the distractions, the Italians defeated France in a penalty shootout for their fourth World Cup.

So the answer is yes, the Italians are considered favorites to win it all.

How have they achieved their place in the Round of Eight?

As they always have—with defense and a quick counter where they load up the penalty area with bodies.

Spain have been the masters of possession and use of space, passing back and forth then surging forward for a quick strike.

Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid showed the world how to beat Barcelona, the typified Spain’s play, by closing down those spaces by playing their ball carriers in smothering triangles. The Netherlands perfected that during the 2014 World Cup with a 3-5-2 formation that shut down del Bosque’s cherished 4-3-3 with an emphatic 5-1 victory.

Italy’s coach, Antonio Conte (who took over Cesare Prandelli following the 2014 World Cup), was apparently watching because since the start of Euro 2016, he has run that formation for every single game.

Goalkeeper        :               Gianluigi Buffon

Defenders          :               Andrea Barzagli,

Leonardo Bonucci

Giorgio Chiellini

Midfielders         :              Antonio Candreva

Marco Parolo  Daniele De Rossi

Emanuele Giaccherini

Matteo Darmian

Forwards             :             Graziano Pelle  Eder

Let’s look how they fared against teams, thus far:

  1. Belgium that runs a 4-2-3-1 formation. The result—2-0.
  2. Sweden that runs a 4-4-2 formation. The result—1-0.
  3. The Republic of Ireland that runs a 4-4-2 formation. The result—1-0.
  4. Spain that runs a 4-3-3 formation. The result—2-0.

The Azzurri had a tough time against teams, like Sweden and the Republic of Ireland, that play with compact formations; much like theirs. The disparity in the scoring is evident, too, and the Italians lost to the Irish.

If you look at how the Netherlands dismantled Spain, then Head Coach Louis van Gaal took the ball away from their midfield maestros Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, and gave Spain’s defense problems with players with motors for legs like Arjen Robben.

One thing working for the Italians is that their entire back three play for Italian champion, Juventus, five-time consecutive Serie A champions (2011-2016). The fact that all three know how to work together along with national goalkeeper Gianlugi Buffon (who is also their teammate with the Turin-based nine) is a massive plus on the defensive end.

And if Spain did their homework against Antonio Conte, they will know that he made his reputation for his work rate while manning the central midfield for Juventus en route to five Serie A titles. And this Italian team has box-to-box midfielders in Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini; the same type of player in the mold of Robben. Furthermore, the way to expose the three-back line of a 3-5-2 is to use the width of the field and place wingbacks with motors. Spain didn’t. And they paid for it.

The Italians may be missing creative sparks in the midfield in Marco Verratti (who plays for French champions Paris-Saint Germain) and Claudio Marchisio (another of those Juventus players) due to injuries but they still have the magnificent Daniele De Rossi who is rated by the French sports magazine L’Equipe as one of the 10 best midfielders in the world today.

And who scored—defender Chiellini and Graziano Pelle. No one has even mentioned this tournament that it was Chiellini who was bit by Uruguay’s Luis Suarez during the last World Cup!

And now, the Italians are marching on to face a German team that makes use of the pitch’s width in Bordeaux.