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ARE REIGNING CHAMPIONS ITALYREADY TO DEFEND EUROS TITLE?

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The enduring image of Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli embracing as Italy celebrated victory at Wembley Stadium on 11 July, 2021 will forever be etched in the minds of the nation.

It was the culmination of an extraordinary project designed to set the national team on a new path.

Three years have gone by and Italy have sadly lost Vialli to pancreatic cancer, failed to qualify for yet another World Cup and Mancini has departed after five years as manager.

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With qualification for Euro 2024 on the line, Italy appointed Luciano Spalletti, the man who had just led Napoli to the Serie A title after a 33-year wait.

The 65-year-old insisted he had left the Partenopei to enjoy some much-needed rest on his Tuscan farm but when the Azzurri came calling, he could not refuse.

To coach the national team was a dream come true and the tactician was thrilled to be afforded the opportunity to guide his country forward.

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Qualifying for the tournament was not easy as Italy only clinched second place in Group C, behind England, with a goalless draw against Ukraine in the final game.

They have since had the misfortune of being placed in the group of death at Euro 2024 alongside heavyweights Spain, experienced Croatia and dark horses Albania.

Italy will arrive in Germany fully aware that despite being the reigning champions, they are far from favourites to win the competition again.

Void of world-class players and a true identity, Spalletti is hoping the strength of the collective coupled with Italy’s history at International tournaments will help push them forward.

“I don’t see top-class players except [Gianluigi] Donnarumma in goal,” said Carlo Ancelotti when asked about his country’s chances at Euro 2024.

AASAS 2

At Euro 2020, Italy could count on the revered and serial-winning defensive duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.

In the middle they boasted the creativity of Marco Verratti, while up front they had the technique and genius of Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi.

None of those players will be in Germany and nor will be their most experienced defender, Inter’s Francesco Acerbi who had to pull out after picking up an injury.

Instead, Italy will be relying on several new faces to prove their worth and the power of one superstar coach, Spalletti.

Famous for being one of Italy’s finest tacticians, Spalletti was always complimented for his teams’ style of play, but criticised for his inability to win trophies.

Winning the Scudetto with Napoli while playing the most captivating brand of football in Europe finally earned him the respect he deserved.

Under his guidance, individuals always shine, while the patterns of play have often proved tantalising. The problem is, he has not had much time at the helm of this Azzurri side to design the perfect set-up that would extract the quality of these younger individuals.

Ideally, he wants a team that can adapt easily to the opponent and can play with either three or four men at the back.

Throughout the qualifiers, Spalletti’s Italy always started in a 4-3-3 formation, but in the friendlies since he has largely toyed with a three-man backline that has not always produced the best of results, including leaving the team vulnerable to the counter-attack.

Against Turkey in a recent friendly that finished goalless, the players looked confused, as if overloaded with too many instructions.

There is little joy to be had when the team look robbed of their instinctual movements and the worry is Spalletti will overcomplicate matters on a tactical level when simplicity almost always succeeds in tournament football.

Yet the coach remains optimistic, while Gianluigi Buffon – in his role as head of delegation – insists this team is rather good. Well, sort of…

“An excellent team, probably underrated and this is a good thing considering how we are, we have three or four excellent individuals,” he said.

Three or four may not be enough for success.

We know Donnarumma is the only world-class player in Ancelotti’s eyes, but while the goalkeeper was player of the tournament at Euro 2020, most Italians would insist Nicolo Barella is the star of this current crop.

The Inter Milan midfielder, who just welcomed his fourth child, has long been coveted by Premier League sides.

Combining stamina and technique, Barella is tactically intelligent and highly regarded for his ability to transition defence to attack.

Boasting endless amounts of energy, he covers ground and exploits space going forward, making him the man to watch for Italy.

He has had a minor injury scare, but Spalletti seems certain Barella will be available and fit for the start of the tournament. His presence will be of the utmost importance as Italy’s midfield looks to have weakened, with many questioning how well the side can control the ball.

Up top, all eyes will be on Gianluca Scamacca, who Spalletti recently described as lazy.

“Scamacca has a bit of everything, but he is a bit lazy,” he revealed. “Perhaps he has changed, but we are all happy to see what he can offer us.”

Spalletti has taken aim at the striker several times this year, but this may well have contributed to a brilliant second half of the campaign from Scamacca for Atalanta.

With 10 goals in 12 games, the forward led his side to the final of the Europa League, where they upset Bayer Leverkusen, and followed dazzling performances along the way including the 3-0 quarter-final win at Anfield against Liverpool.

Italy has not produced a deadly finisher for some time, with Euro 2020 striker Ciro Immobile often criticised for not being good enough at the top level.

If Scamacca can perform for country as he has done for club, the Azzurri might have finally addressed their biggest weakness.

It may not be a squad comparable to those of the past, which brimmed with quality all over the pitch, but Italy seem certain they possess a united, hard-working team that will fight for the result.

One should never underestimate the Azzurri but the question is, are Italy actually ready for this tournament?

 BBC

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