The Italian National Team, known to their fans as gli Azzurri, were drawn with Belgium, the Republic of Ireland and Sweden for the 2016 European Championship group stage, in what we (and several others) have already labelled "The Group Of Death" compared to the others on the board.
The group features the best team in the world if the FIFA ranking is to be believed (Belgium), perennial contenders and four-time World Champions (Italy), a team ranked just outside the top thirty (Republic of Ireland) and, finally, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden). All four teams could be competitive even at a championship level in the group stage. However, each of these sides can count on solid rosters and tactical organization, if in different ways, rendering the FIFA rankings somewhat irrelevant.
Belgium are a world-class offensive power, thanks to players like Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne. They have the benefit of a lot of depth in both the striker and winger positions, and they have a couple of good midfielders too. Their defensive line is clearly their weakness: except for Vincent Kompany, they don't have any other reliable center backs in their roster. Jan Vertonghen doesn't fit well as a fullback against opponents that have quick and skilled wingers, due to his size and playing style. However, they're lucky to have two keepers like Simon Mignolet and Thibaut Courtois who compensate for this weakness.
The Republic of Ireland seem the weaker team in this group, but they can count on great tactical organization and a lot of experience. Shay Given and LA Galaxy star Robbie Keane are clearly their emotional leaders, and they still have something left in the tank as players and they could be very important for Martin O'Neill's team. Ireland have other talented players on their roster like Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady, and they will surely try to qualify for the Round of 16 of the European Championship with that famed fighting Irish spirit.
Sweden seem to be a step above the Republic of Ireland in terms of quality, if only just because Zlatan Ibrahimović plays for them. He's the main reason why they made it to the Euros, but they have other quality players at their disposal, especially at midfield. Sweden can rely on Kim Kallstrom, Ola Toivonen and Albin Ekdal in that role, and they have experienced players like Andreas Granqvist and Mikael Lustig in their defensive line. Also, there's the U-21 European Championship's best player, John Guidetti, who could even find space as a starter with Ibra due to his ability to play both as target man and second striker.
Antonio Conte has done a great job with the Italian national team since he was chosen as head coach in 2014, considering the dire state of affairs that existed at the beginning of his adventure as Commissario Technico. He has totally changed their playing style, switching from a 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 as primary tactical disposition. He continues to tinker with his "beloved" 3-5-2 as a situational formation in case they need to adapt to a particular opponent. He has also done a number on his players' mentality in order to make them stay focused and battle from the beginning to the end of each game. Conte's Azzurri display the grinta that earned Juventus three straight Scudetti, a quality that they evidently lacked when Cesare Prandelli was at the helm. Though there remains room for improvement before the European Championship, from this standpoint, Conte's influence is palpable.
However, despite these positive changes he has made since his arrival on the Azzurri's bench, he still hasn't fixed their problems in playing against hyper-defensive minded opponents, as the two 1-0 wins over Malta in the qualifying round prove. For this reason, the matches against the Republic of Ireland and Sweden might be more difficult than they ought to be, considering the comparative quality of Italy's roster. The Azzurri will be forced to stay focused throughout all 180 minutes of playing time against these two opponents if they want to earn all six points and have a chance to win the group.
In these two matchups, Graziano Pellè and Leonardo Bonucci might be the key players for Italy, for different reasons. The 30 year-old striker from Southampton is the only player on the entire roster who can fight against big, physical center-backs so his assignment might be to keep the ball and provide service to the other forward or the wide midfielders. Antonio Conte would be surely be happy if he were able to score on his own too. Bonucci will have coverage duties as usual, but he'll face great strikers like Ibra, Keane and even Shane Long, so he'll need to be almost perfect throughout both games to improve Italy's chances to earn those six points.
The match against Belgium won't be more important than the two cited above, but it's likely to be decisive for the first place in Group E. The top team in the world will try to repeat the performance on November 13 when they defeated the Azzurri 3-1. That time, Belgium outplayed Italy at the center of the field, thanks to their dynamic duo of box-to-box midfielders formed by Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan, forcing Italian wingers to move from their positions and causing fullbacks to play a lot of one-on-one situations against quicker opponents. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for the Azzurri, since their gameplay will probably be to take advantage of Belgium's ball possession in order to make them expend a lot of energy and then counterattack. That doesn't mean Italy will use catenaccio against the Red Devils, because it would be too risky, but they're surely expected to have lesser possession than their opponents by choice, not because of a bad performance.
So, do the Azzurri have a chance to win their group at 2016 European Championship? Conte's perpetual quest for perfection means he would never settle for anything less than first, even if it seems a more realistic goal to play for second given their opponents. Italy could win the group if they remain focused enough and put in the extra effort required to nab all nine points. So, yes, they really have a chance to win it - these are, after all, gli Azzurri, who we all know play best with their backs against the wall.