Conte and his players have known from the moment the draw was made that this would be a tough tournament. They were expecting that if all went to plan, they would meet their old rivals Germany at the quarter-final stage.
Instead, they’ve come up against their new rivals a round earlier, and the odds could hardly be stacked more heavily against them.
Defeat against Ireland, albeit with numerous changes, hasn’t helped.
Not that Italy would have been that comfortable facing Croatia. They have never beaten their Adriatic neighbours, apart from a friendly in 1942. Italy have struggled in their last three encounters, all of them bruising matches ending up a goal apiece.
Meeting Spain does at least fit the message that Conte has been drumming into his squad since they started training three weeks ago: ‘We are outsiders but we can upset the odds.’ And of course it also offers the chance to avenge their crushing defeat in the final four years ago.
Italy were running on empty that night in Kiev, and were already being passed to death when Giorgio Chiellini went off injured after 20 minutes. They then had to play the last half-hour with 10 men, and conceded twice in the final 10 minutes. The abiding memory is of Iker Casillas asking the referee to blow for full-time to spare the Italians further punishment.
Seven of that Spanish team are likely to start against Italy on Monday. Barring accidents, the Azzurri will field the same defensive unit they had back then. But still, the two sides are significantly different.
Spain have evolved tactically, with a style dubbed Tiki-Taka 2.0. Attacking width is fundamental to their game, as Cesc Fabregas pointed out after their 3-0 victory over Turkey.
The Italian commentators have been more impressed by the way the four midfield attackers play a very high line, moving the ball horizontally from one wing to the other. They retain possession with 20 or 30 passes — and then suddenly strike with a single vertical or diagonal pass, usually from Andres Iniesta or David Silva.
How Italy counter this depends on how much their midfield and attacking players are able to press the opposition. Their strength is in defence, but Conte, like Vicente Del Bosque, also wants to harry opponents high up the pitch.
Italy are better equipped to do this now than they were back in 2012. Their forwards back then, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, have never been known for doing the dirty work. Conte’s 3-5-2 system also gives greater width.
One Spanish weakness is that Tiki-Taka 2.0, like the original version, can become over-elaborate.
Italy have also taken heart from the way Croatia’s lightning counter-attack defeated Spain, especially as Nikola Kalinic and Ivan Perisic did the damage, and both play in Serie A. Neither Graziano Pellè nor Eder, the likely starters, are prolific strikers. But Alvaro Morata has not scored many in Serie A either — his confrontation with his Juventus team-mates is bound to be a key factor.
Italy seemed unusually timid against Ireland. Their energy levels couldn’t match their opponents and although there were flashes of clever attacking play, their defenders were definitely on different wavelengths.
At times it was as if Salvatore Sirigu and Leonardo Bonucci had never have played together previously. Both were at fault for Ireland’s goal.
It was not that big a surprise to see Italy struggle in this game. Their first-choice XI is not the strongest, and the rest of the squad is technically average. The surprise was perhaps that they lost tactical cohesion, and this will surely convince Conte to stick with his core players.
The one area of doubt is on the left of midfield where he has to choose between Alessandro Florenzi and Matteo Darmian.
Otherwise, he will hope that his players can recover their rhythm against Iniesta and company, and that resting the spine of his side will give them a new edge.