The supposedly desirable result for the Irish eventually emerged from Toulouse yesterday when Eder’s late winner put one of Ireland’s rivals into the next round and deepened the task of another, Sweden.
Uefa’s decision to enlarge the tournament to 24 nations, entailing all but eight of them reaching the next stage, ensures something is at stake in each of the concluding group fixtures. Third spot will be enough in four of the six groups, keeping alive the possibility of teams recovering from previous mishaps to accrue points on the last lap to give their fans and the watching public added excitement.
Italy certainly won’t consider the meeting with Ireland a free pass. There was nothing surprising in Antonio Conte’s post-match declaration that changes will be made to his team, especially given six players are walking the disciplinary tightrope of being one yellow card from suspension.
Defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are a booking away from being banned, along with midfielder Daniele De Rossi and goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, yet there’s no suggestion Conte will spare all of them, or a guarantee any replacements would be any less capable.
To assume those alterations will weaken the Italians to the point Ireland have an easier challenge is ludicrous.
For starters, irrespective of the personnel, Conte is unlikely to abandon his “three-at-the-back” approach that has served them so well.
Belgium were kept scoreless in Monday’s win and not even Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s influence yesterday denied Italy another clean sheet. Indeed, veteran stopper Buffon wasn’t troubled by a sole Swedish effort on target.
“I’m not going to make wholesale changes for the Ireland game, because I plan to pick a team to win the match,” explained Chelsea-bound boss Conte.
“As much as we’re disappointed by them, we have got to deal with these yellow cards. I am happy with my squad and some players deserve to start from what they have done in training.
“This squad kept their perspective when some people were saying they wouldn’t even get out of the group. They have achieved that already but we still want to beat Ireland and go through to the next round with nine points.”
Likely to come into the side facing the Irish in Lille are Matteo Darmian, Thiago Motta, Ciro Immobile, and Lorenzo Insigne, none of whom started yesterday.
Italy are in knockout-stage mode now and that means competition for places starts Wednesday.
Beating Belgium and Sweden put to bed any talk of this team being in decline, and Conte being distracted by his imminent move to the Premier League. If Martin O’Neill’s labelling of Italy as a “tournament team” is accurate, then they’ll be averse to suffering a blip with the last-16 looming.
The age profile of this team meant squad rotation was always a given where possible. Conte fielded a starting XI yesterday averaging 31 years, with Graziano Pelle the only player operating outside of Serie A.
As Liam Brady opined in the Irish Examiner last week, there are limitations to this Italian squad, much more noticeably than previous generations. There is nobody in the ilk of Roberto Baggio, Christian Vieri or even Andrea Pirlo. Flair is at a premium, defensive solidity plentiful.
The same criticism could be levelled at Italy’s World Cup winners of 2006, as Ireland exploited within a couple of years, but the familiar Italian characteristics remain constant. Buffon, Andrea Barzagi and De Rossi are the survivors from that triumph a decade on in what will surely be their last Euros appearance.
In the absence of Pirlo, De Rossi has taken on added responsibility to dictate the midfield tempo. Others have since come in with a point to prove, not least Emanuele Giaccherini. Though still officially a Sunderland player, his three years on Wearside have been indelibly linked to Paolo Di Canio’s ill-fated brief tenure as boss. The Black Cats’ wish his season-long to Bologna be upgraded to a permanent deal didn’t materialise.
As O’Neill pointed out yesterday, the likelihood is high of Ireland needing to win one of their two remaining games to clinch a best third spot due to the pattern unravelling in other pools. A couple more draws might not be sufficient.
The sense of cross-border unity breaking out from Northern Ireland’s win over Ukraine on Thursday could be short-lived if it ultimately results in squeezing Ireland out. Nothing shifted yesterday to deem the Italian job being any less critical to that outcome.