Italy boss Antonio Conte plays it cool ahead of Ireland test

Italy’s pre-match sentiments tend to be dominated by battle cries, but on this occasion, Antonio Conte seemed satisfied to reserve the emotive language for his opponents Ireland.

Given all the pressure is on Martin O’Neill’s side to deliver an unlikely win to prolong their stay at Euro 2016 beyond tonight, the Chelsea-bound boss didn’t need to engage in any psychological warfare.

His words were anything but condescending, instead spoken with the authority of a man whose duels with the Irish stretch back to the 1994 World Cup, when Italy were stunned by Ray Houghton’s winner at the Giants Stadium.

“I didn’t play that day in 1994 but, from what I remember, we had a very tough afternoon,” said the Italian manager yesterday in Lille.

“And because we lost that opening fixture, it put us into a knockout situation to eventually qualify from the group.

“That was a very good Ireland side, as is the current team. There’s the same characteristics here. The players are selfless and have a competitive desire to do well for one another.

“It wasn’t by the grace of God that Ireland beat Germany in the qualifiers. They have significant ability in the team and all help each other out as a unit.

“This will be life and death for the Irish, the biggest game of their careers. We don’t want to get it wrong.”

Conte insists he’ll be paying due respect to both nations by selecting a much-changed side, yet one of sufficient strength, capable of becoming the only nation in the last 16 boasting a maximum nine points. Though six of his players are carrying yellow cards in tonight’s game, he quelled speculation that the overhaul could amount to nine changes from the starting team which sealed a late 1-0 win over Sweden on Friday.

“There will be changes but fewer than nine,” was as far as Conte would go. “Our captain Gigi Buffon will not start because he has had a temperature in recent days but the team picked will show much the importance I’m placing on trying to make it three wins from three.

“I am relaxed about which team goes out against Ireland because I know they will give me everything. This can be a watershed moment for some players in the squad, as they can look to keep their places for the knockout stage.

“I don’t see my players as starters and substitutes. All 23 players make a contribution. We win together and lose together.”

Conte was eager to nail the theory that the Italians will motor no higher than second gear for this fixture, citing their win over Norway during the qualifiers — which came after they’d booked their trip to France — to support his position.

He also attempted to dampen a line of questioning on whether the long wait since 1968 for a European Championship trophy to be brought home was almost over.

“It’s almost like we’re starting to pop the champagne corks, so let’s take a step back,” said the former Juventus boss.

“This is not a useless match for us. Ireland are physically powerful side who are a compact unit and will have desire to win. I know that if we were to lose, the Italian people would really have a go at us.

“It doesn’t matter that we are through to the next round, because in our last qualifying match against Norway in October, we beat them. That result pushed them into the play-offs, which they lost. Winning breeds confidence and we aim to continue that against Ireland.

“Humility is part of intelligence. We must be humble, but never forget that, although we might have a great deal of ability, there is also a huge number of weaknesses there too.”

Much has been made of the surface at the Stade Pierre Mauroy since the weekend and the Italian supremo expressed his disappointment at its condition after walking it with his players last night.

“This surface is definitely not suited to hosting a European Championship match,” he said. “I don’t like coming up with excuses for my players, because Ireland will have to play on it too. We expected a much better pitch. It is a real shame, because the rest of Euro 2016 has been run very well.”

That will be the height of Conte’s complaints about the group phase, unless Ireland produce another result tonight on the scale of the Germany scalp.

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