Despite making it to the final four years ago, Italy come into this summer's Euros as underdogs. Compared to the great Azzurri sides of the past, this team is decidedly mediocre. Outgoing manager Antonio Conte has come under heavy criticism for his selections ahead of the competition, omitting key names such as Jorginho, Leonardo Pavoletti and Milan's own Giacomo Bonaventura. Mattia De Sciglio was ultimately the only Milan player to make the cut.
On top of this, Italy have been less than impressive in the buildup to the competition, despite a 2-0 win over Finland in their final pre-tournament friendly. Nonetheless, despite Italy's poor performance over the last two years under Conte, we all know that when it comes to the big occasion, they generally tend to deliver. The Azzurri may have crashed out of the last World Cup early, but their record in tournaments over the years would be enviable in the eyes of most other nations. In fact, the underdog label has often spurred Italy to greatness. Calciopoli cast a long shadow over Italian football in 2006, yet the controversy surrounding it ended up giving Italy the impetus to go on and win the World Cup. This may be a weak Italy squad, but they're bound to turn up against Belgium on Monday night.
Italy will most likely line up in Conte's favoured 3-5-2 formation used for much of the qualifying campaign. The ageless Gianluigi Buffon and the formidable defensive trio of Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli are amongst the best in the world in their respective positions, and that defensive solidity will be key in Italy's ability to beat Belgium and progress from the group. The midfield is less formidable, given the absence of the injured Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio. The likes of Thiago Motta, Marco Parolo and Daniele De Rossi are all arguably past their prime, but if they sacrifice themselves for the team then they should be more than capable of shutting down the Belgian attack. Italy's attack, however, lacks firepower; the strike partnership of Graziano Pelle and Simone Zaza leaves plenty to be desired in contrast to the great striking duos of the past.
Belgium are likely to field a more straightforward 4-2-3-1 system emphasising a powerful midfield duo of Radja Nainggolan and perennial Milan target Axel Witsel alongside the attacking talents of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. Belgium's team is loaded with star power, however, despite a 3-1 friendly win over Italy back in November, les Diables Rouges have never looked like a cohesive unit on the international stage. Their defence especially is quite weak, not least due to the absence of defensive linchpin Vincent Kompany. They certainly have identifiable weaknesses, something Italian sides are traditionally very good at exploiting.
This could well be the toughest test of the group stage for Italy, despite the presence of a Zlatan-inspired Sweden. Given the circumstances, a draw would be a more than satisfactory result in a match such as this one, especially if Italy can beat Sweden and Ireland as they are expected to. Italy may not have star attackers such as Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti or Roberto Baggio to call upon right now, but history shows that the Azzurri come up with the goods when they really need to, and this could well be another one of those times.
Italy: 3-5-2 - Gianluigi Buffon; Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini; Antonio Candreva, Marco Parolo, Daniele De Rossi, Thiago Motta, Stephane El Shaarawy; Simone Zaza, Graziano Pelle.
Belgium: 4-2-3-1 - Thibaut Courtois; Jason Denayer, Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen; Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan; Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard; Romelu Lukaku.
How To Watch
Where: Stade Des Lumieres, Lyon.
When: 21.00pm local, 15.00pm EST, Monday 13th June 2016.
TV: Sky Italia 1 (Italy), BBC One (UK), ESPN (USA)
Online: SKY Go Italia (Italy), BBC Iplayer (UK), Watch ESPN (USA)
International listings can be viewed here.
Italy 1-0 Belgium
Belgium aren't quite as good as everyone thinks they are. Italy can defy the odds in classic style and win with a well-executed shutout.