No need for stars in Conte's renovation of Italian culture
Published 22/06/2016 | 02:30
The men most guaranteed to chill Irish football blood in Lille tonight will be sitting on the bench but this did not prevent a small, sardonic smile from Italy coach Antonio Conte when it was suggested his team selection was a small act of mercy.
"Any team I pick from my squad would never be a present to any opponent. We have passed the point where we offer gifts," he said.
Barely a week ago the 46-year-old, who shortly arrives in Chelsea to a whole new set of expectations, might have been scorned for displaying such breezy confidence in all his resources. Now he is being seen as a man to attack the heart of any football problem.
Italy arrived in France not much more than a badly faded memory. They could point to the still defiant veteran back-line of Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, in front of time-less goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon, but not much else.
Now they are being re-branded as the second wonder of the Italian football year. First there was Claudio Ranieri's miracle-working at Leicester. Now there is Conte's stunning renovation of his nation's great football culture after a run of three straight Serie A titles at Juventus.
His former player there, the ageing field general, Andrea Pirlo, was jettisoned by his old boss recently but he is a leading member of a vast chorus of praise.
"Conte is a beast of a football man," says Pirlo. "It is as though he can make players do anything he wants, as though he can get into their heads."
He has certainly made it clear that far from handing Ireland a lifeline to a possible third-place qualification for the round of 16 he is still working hard on the psyche and the ambition of a group of players who, rather surprisingly, are still rated below England by the odds-makers at a generous 12/1.
"I'm not making stars here," he says. "I'm making a team. That's my job."
It was one superbly accomplished in the shattering opening victory over the Belgian glitterati of Eden Hazard and Co, and the clinical shutdown of Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His point now is that the new Italy are rather like the old one which accumulated four World Cups - just one less than Brazil - if minus the odd superstar like Paolo Rossi.
They are a team of fierce tactical discipline and inter-changeable parts. Tonight there will be no Buffon, no Bonucci and no Emanuele Giaccherini, who so spectacularly set the tone with his opener against Belgium.
But, Conte points out, there will be a team ethos in which as many as nine replacements will be fighting to get into the knock-out action.
Daniele de Rossi, Roma's winner of 105 caps, has been a key part of the resurrection in midfield and his perspective, almost certainly from the bench tonight after fine performances in the opening games, is of an old warrior who has seen the priorities of his team return to some familiar places.
He was asked if he was offended by the widespread belief that this is an Italian team of "lesser talent".
He shrugged his indifference to the opinion and wondered why he should be affected, one way or another, by some judges who didn't seem to know the difference between a football and a coconut.
"It is true," he said, "we do not have individuals who catch the eye, a Hazard or an Ibrahimovic, but we have other qualities which are very significant. We think as one, we know what is going on the minds of our team-mates, we have developed this understanding which is so vital.
"Okay, maybe some teams have some phenomenal talent, but how well do they relate to the team and isn't there a huge gap between their ability and that of those who come to replace them or work beside them? Here, is where we are strong.
"Conte hasn't given us some secret on how to make brilliant passes or produce tricks but he has given us great balance, a great reading of the game.
"Certainly I'm not surprised that his time with the national team will be brief. He is like a field animal, wanting to be in action and fighting all the time and for that he needs club football. But already you can see with Italy what he gives to his teams."
De Rossi's views are echoed by Fabio Capello, a superb club coach in both Italy and Spain who despaired of turning the national teams of England and Russia into anything approaching a cohesive unit. Capello says: "Yes, I do believe Italy can be a contender now. They are a humble team based on organisation and clearly the best defence in the European Championships."
For Ireland the message could hardly be more daunting. Whatever - or whoever - they find on the field tonight, unlikely to be included is even a hint of gift wrapping.