Italy boss Antonio Conte not taking Ireland lightly

Wary of Irish threat as Azzurri head into Euro 2016 with a far from vintage crop

Italy boss Antonio Conte is wary of the threat posed by Ireland. Photograph: Epa

Italy boss Antonio Conte is wary of the threat posed by Ireland. Photograph: Epa

 

You might imagine that Italian coach Antonio Conte could easily make the mistake of underestimating Ireland when the two sides meet next month in their Euro 2016 first round game in Lille. After all, the two countries have very different tournament track records.

Four times World Cup winners Italy are often there or thereabouts at tournaments like this, whilst Ireland are in the swelling ranks of the “happy-to-be-here” club. That may be but when the Irish Times caught up with Conte this week at the Italian Federation training centre of Coverciano, outside Florence, the 46-year old Italian coach was taking nothing for granted in relation Ireland.

He said: “As far as I am concerned, this is the hardest first round group of all...Ireland took points from Germany, they are a tough team. I saw their play-off games against Bosnia. They are a much improved team, they are obviously very physical and then too they often like to use the long ball, looking for the lay-off...Even if that is not always the case because the Premiership has much changed the once classic English style...”

Stephan El Shaarawy, Italy’s exciting striker who is currently with AS Roma, recently confessed he did not know the Irish team squad. The same lack of knowledge about the opposition, however, does not apply to coach Conte: “The Irish players are maybe not well known (in Italy) but there are some very useful ones.

“ A player I like a lot, for example, is that Southampton striker (Shane Long), and then there is (Seamus) Coleman at Everton and the central defender John O’Shea who is a very, very good player...No, no, you cannot tell me that I don’t know this Irish team...”

Second Captains

Conte, too, has plenty of respect for his opposite number, Martin O’Neill: “Was he not a good midfielder as a player, who was it with?...Ah yes, Nottingham Forest...He has obviously done a great job with Ireland because it is never easy to qualify for a tournament like this...Then they beat Bosnia in the play-offs, a team that has players of the quality of Pjanic, Dzeko and Luljic..”

Perhaps these are just the usual, polite words for an opponent who, deep down inside, you expect to beat. Perhaps, but in a first round where Italy kick off with the number one ranked side in the world, Belgium, a game in which plenty of things could go wrong, Conte is keenly aware that his third, first round game against Ireland could be decisive.

He himself has plenty of his own problems. For a start, he has most recently lost two key midfielders in PSG’s Marco Verratti and Juve’s Claudio Marchisio, both injured. More generally, however, many pundits would argue that this current Italy is short on the sort of talent that used to grace the Savoy Royal blue shirt.

Does this squad have players like Maldini, Baggio, Del Piero, Paolo Rossi, Antognoni, Scirea?Probably, veteran goalkeeper, 38-year-old Gigi Buffon is about the only current Italian player who could claim to have World XI ranking. Conte makes no bones about the decline and fall of Italian football, adding that he “would be in difficulty to name you good young (Italian) players”.

Shortly, of course, Conte will be Premiership bound to take up his new position as Chelsea manager. At the moment, however, he claims that his current thoughts are focussed only on Italy and Euro 2016: “Anybody who knows me, knows that I take things one at a time so I won’t be thinking about Chelsea..not until mid-July at least...”

And Italy, what about their chances at Euro 2016?

“We’ll start with our headlights turned off, because this is maybe not a good moment for Italian football but, as the tournament goes on, maybe we will light up and shine into other teams’ faces...”

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