'You're a disappointing half-wit'- How Italy boss Conte deals with complacency in his ranks
As Belgium dispatched of Ireland with a surgeon’s precision in Bordeaux on Saturday, what scant consolation that could be found resided in the promise made by Italy manager Antonio Conte to rest key players for their final group game.
The incoming Chelsea boss revealed his intention after Italy had beaten Sweden 1-0 and, following their ultra impressive victory over Belgium in the opening game, guaranteed that they would progress to the next round as group winners.
Of course, Belgium, evidently not mired by in-fighting and swollen egos as thought, considerably offset this boon for Martin O’Neill and co, when casting off their inertia and beating the Boys in Green by 3-0.
Furthermore, events over the weekend in other groups have rid Ireland’s task on Wednesday of any ambiguity. Simply put, they win or go home.
Easier said than done, we hear you say. For a nation of their pedigree, it is odd that the Italians have emerged as somewhat of a surprise package in France.
Before the tournament began many gave very credible reasons as to why the beaten finalists four years ago would not be genuine contenders in 2016.
The consensus was that this was an aging squad lacking in the requisite depth, even more so in the injury-enforced absences of midfielders Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio.
That they were also without a genuinely elite centre forward only added further weight to the argument.
After their disciplined, compact and altogether cerebral display against Belgium, Italy were quickly reclassified as a clear and present danger to any side they might encounter thereafter.
The spine of the side is comprised of the impermeable Turin quartet of Buffon, Barzagli, Cheillini and Bonucci, arguably the most formidable defence in the competition, and, just in front of them, the grizzled Daniele De Rossi is far from a shrinking violet. Thankfully, Ireland are unlikely to meet any of them.
Depending on how the final round of fixtures in Group D transpire, Italy will face one of Spain, Croatia or Czech Republic in round of 16.
Not accounting for the military-infused managerial prowess of Conte, is what now appears to be the most glaring oversight in dismissing Italy as guaranteed also-rans.
Animated and explosive in the same vein as Jose Mourinho and Diego Simeone, the 46-year-old has acquired a reputation for volcanic outbursts, but also his shrewd, structured tactical approach which saw Juventus win three consecutive Serie A titles while he was the helm.
At Juve, regardless of how wantonly they dominated the Italian top flight, it became apparent that no game, regardless of how inconsequential it appeared, was to be taken lightly on Conte’s watch.
Which is unlikely to fill Irish fans with glee, and rightly so. In his brilliant book Metodo Conte, Italian journalist Alessandro Alciato gives one of many apt examples of Conte’s ferociousness.
Picture the scene. Juventus had wrapped up their third Scudetto in as many seasons and were on 99 points. However, Conte ensured preparations were as exacting as always for his final league game in charge against Napoli, as he desperately wanted to break 100 points.
He had called in his players for some video analysis when Gigi Buffon walked in with Juventus chief executive Beppe Marotta.
“Excuse me for one moment, boss,” Buffon ventured. “The director just wants to clear up the question of bonuses owed to the team after the title win.”
In response, Conte exploded into an uncontrollable rage and immediately told his players to leave the room, before eviscerating the veteran goalkeeper.
“I don’t want to hear another word,” Conte is reported to have roared. “From you, of all people, I would never have expected such a thing. Bonuses … You’re a disappointment, a defeat from the moment you open your mouth. Just like all the rest of these half-wits.”
So while Conte is thought to be resting up to nine players, six of whom are on yellow cards, the idea that Ireland may be encountering a team in Lille dilute of tenacity or grit is, to put it mildly, fanciful.
The languid genius that is Andrea Pirlo said the following of Conte’s team talks.
“His words assault you. They crash through your mind, often quite violently, and settle deep within.”
Given how vapid and uneven Ireland proved against Belgium, is it possible for them to raise their game exponentially and, somehow, manufacture such an improbable, but priceless victory?
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