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Dismiss The Azzurri At Your Own Peril

Fear the sleeping giant. This may not be Italy's most spectacular squad, but they could shock the world at the Euros.

Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Let's be frank, shall we? This summer's incarnation of the Azzurri is far from the most talented or exciting squad to sport that revered blue jersey in a major tournament.  Moreover, the Italians are far from the most talented or exciting squad amongst their peers competing against them in France.  On paper, Italy doesn't have a top-five squad, and this reality has led to a general malaise regarding the Azzurri going into the Euros, despite their surprising run to the final in the tournament's last edition.

Most of that angst has emanated from controversial squad selections, injuries, and lack of depth in key areas.  Antonio Conte's omission of skilled players like Giacomo Bonaventura and Jorginho in favour of more industrious players like Stefano Sturaro and Emanuele Giaccherini who fit "the system" drew the ire of critics who demanded a more creative and imaginative squad.  Hopes of such creativity had suffered a big blow with injuries to Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti.  The pair are arguably Italy's two best players and inarguably their two best midfielders, and their absence has turned a position of strength into a major question mark.  Speaking of questions, Italy's attack is perhaps the biggest one facing this team, with players like Simone Zaza and Graziano Pelle the only uninspiring options.

There are certainly numerous reasons to be skeptical or downright cynical about the Azzurri's chances, but bracing for disaster before a game has been played would be premature and unnecessarily negative.

One major reason to preserve a little bit of optimism is the squad's stellar defence.  Simply put, the Azzurri have the best back line in the tournament.  Backstopped by living legend Gianluigi Buffon, the Azzurri are incredibly fortunate to have an experienced, cool-headed, game-winning goalkeeper who is still the best in the business even at the age of 38.  Where age has often meant a decline in performance for most players, Gigi has aged like a premium bottle of Sangiovese. And in front of him are three of his Juventus teammates, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, and Leonardo Bonucci.  One would be hard pressed to find a stingier trio of defenders anywhere, and the fact that they are club teammates, playing in a familiar system, bodes very well for Italy and very badly for opposing offences.

Another major positive for Italy is the atmosphere created by Antonio Conte.  Conte has caught flack for his selections, his tactics, the Azzurri's uninspiring qualification campaign, and seemingly everything in between, and he would have it no other way.  Conte lives for the "us against the world" narrative, as he strives to insulate his team and form a tight-knit unit.  It worked wonders in his first few seasons at Juventus, and he finds himself in a scenario where he doesn't even have to manufacture that narrative, surrounded by dissenting voices.  Whether Italy fail to win a game or go on to win it all, all of the criticism or praise will be heaped on Conte.  With this in mind, expect the Azzurri to be an intensely motivated side.

Italy are not going into the Euros as anything close to favourites, and based on the overall quality of their side, that's a fair assessment.  However, with their stellar defence and motivated squad, it wouldn't be the craziest scenario to see Italy win a knockout round or two.  Italy's demons have always been fought during the group stage, but once those demons are vanquished, the Azzurri are always a formidable opponent when elimination is on the line.  Despite the fact that this team has glaring holes, specifically creativity in midfield and quality up front, they certainly have it in their arsenal to sit back, play without the ball, and grind out 1-0 results against more talented opposition.  Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding the Azzurri, count them out at your own peril.  They would have it no other way. We all remember what happened the last time there was this much doom and gloom surrounding the team heading into a major tournament, right? Right.