Friday 24 November 2017

'Unique' Conte turning Italy's base medals into gold

Italy's coach Antonio Conte reacts during the match Belgium and Italy. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/Getty Images
Italy's coach Antonio Conte reacts during the match Belgium and Italy. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/Getty Images

James Ducker

Antonio Conte did not break stride as the Italy coach nodded politely at a throng of reporters in the bowels of the Stade des Lumieres in Lyon late on Monday evening, thundering towards the team bus with the purposeful look of a man who had already turned his attention to plotting Sweden's downfall.

Conte has an intimidating air and as Italy's players were busy reflecting a few yards away on a job very well done against Belgium, their appreciation of the incoming Chelsea manager's tactical triumph seemed to stem as much from fear as deep respect. The message, though, was resounding: Chelsea are inheriting something special.

"Conte is a strong manager in every way," said Sunderland midfielder Emanuele Giaccherini, scorer of Italy's first goal in their 2-0 win over one of pre-tournament favourites.

"He works so hard on everything during the week and wants every player to know exactly what he wants to do in every aspect of their game. He is so focused. I'd say he is a unique manager in that respect, there is no one like him.

"He will be a success at Chelsea, I am sure of that. He is a manager the players love to play for."

Seasoned observers of Italian football consider this to be probably the country's least gifted squad for 50 years, especially with star midfielders Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio ruled out.

Yet Conte has fashioned a team that is so much more than the sum of its parts, with his players adapting seamlessly to his flexible 3-5-2 system.

It may have stood out more because Italy contrasted starkly with a Belgium side bursting with individual talent but hamstrung by the tactical shortcomings of their coach, Marc Wilmots - who reacted in prickly fashion to a flood of criticism back home

"The press have been praising me for four years and to now tear me down after a single game is easy, right? And now suddenly I'm a bad coach?" said Wilmots.

"I have to laugh at some of the criticism at our tactics. Having looked back at the game we deserved at least a draw. We had a couple of enormous chances to bring it back to 1-1."

There was a barrage of criticism from media, pundits and fans in Belgium after an unconvincing performance. Even goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois joined in, admitting: "Belgium were tactically outclassed."

Wilmots said he thought Courtois' comment was made "in the heat of battle". "He was frustrated after letting in two goals," said Wilmots. "Courtois said it was not aimed at me."

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