For much of the English media, it seems, Antonio Conte is merely filling in time as Italy manager in the much the same way as Roy Hodgson is with England; the difference being that they reckon the former is on the way up whereas the latter, as with all men in that particular job, should be on his way out.
Conte will not countenance questions on his upcoming career at Chelsea but, inevitably, the speculation never stops and Leonardo Bonucci and Antonio Candreva are among the latest of his national squad apparently set to follow him to Stamford Bridge.
Given the competition, he will certainly have to recruit well if he is to restore the Londoners to the top of the pile but even then, given the increased competition, his success is far from guaranteed.
Right now, though, he looks just a little bit, well, special. His record at Juventus – three straight titles after inheriting a side that finished seventh – speaks for itself and though Italy stumbled just a little bit through the qualifying stages of this competition, they have shown signs in the manner of the win against Belgium that they have the potential to be champions now that they are here.
“It’s as though you have starting popping the champagne corks already,” he said, with a smile, when asked if he agreed yesterday.
“Where I come from they say that the same people who build you up are also quick to knock you down so I know that if we lose you will start to have a go at us,” he said. Still, there was none of the hostility here that
displayed towards his country’s media before, and, in particular, after Belgium’s defeat of
over the weekend.
Conte said he was in a bad mood as he sought to concentrate on a game for which he is expected to make wholesale changes but he was playful as he teased the Italian media about their speculation over the starting line-up. “Somewhere between seven and nine,” he jokily suggested after initially denying that there would not be as many changes as have been predicted.
Rather more seriously, he said that he was “disappointed” by the widespread notion that this would represent little more than a run out for his reserves.
“If you think this is a dead rubber for us then that’s not the case; winning breeds additional victories and I am going to pick my side based on that feeling. There will be decisions made,” he continued a little ominously, “that will show everyone how much this game means to us”.
Ireland, he said, like they all do, are physically strong and full of team spirit but he went on to make clear that he does not believe “you beat Germany because of the grace of God or because you have a lucky day.” There is, he said, “significant ability” in the team.
Perhaps more significant will be the motivation the Irish possess as they head into the game and Conte observed that: “this will be life and death for them, the biggest game of their careers.”
He is not wrong there but then he did not sound unduly concerned and for those who doubt Italy’s ruthlessness he reminded everyone of the last round of games in qualifying when Norway, with Italy already assured of top spot, needed a win in Rome to steal a place at these finals away from under the noses of Croatia but were beaten 2-1.
“We sent Norway to the play-offs when we didn’t need to,” he says. Norway, of course, didn’t survive the setback with Hungary booking their place here instead. For Ireland, there will be no second chances and if they are expecting any charity from Conte, it seems, they had better think again.