Italy’s plans took a huge hit in the weeks before the tournament with key midfielders Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti both laid low through injury. It was the last thing coach Antonio Conte wanted and the 2012 runners-up, who flopped at the World Cup, go into Euro 2016 on the back foot. They should have enough to get through Group E but look decidedly vulnerable after that – although the traditional theme is that the Italians, even if they do not sparkle, tend to find a way to get the job done. Getting to the latter stages this time would be quite an achievement for the Chelsea-bound coach.

THE BIG QUESTION

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How does Conte solve the midfield crisis? Resources could not be a lot thinner and he will probably have to call on a combination of two from three old faces – Daniele De Rossi, Thiago Motta and Riccardo Montolivo – to steer Italy through in the centre. That may not be a disaster, and know-how has taken Italy a very long way in the past, but spark is definitely lacking and, with the possibilities up front not exactly scintillating either, they may have to rely on an old-school battening down of the hatches if they are to come close to repeating their run of 2012.

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PREDICTED XI

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Conte deployed the 3-4-3 he often favoured with Juventus to good effect in the March friendly against Spain – although they were hammered 4-1 in Germany a few days later – and may persist with it unless injuries alter his thinking. It could mean Matteo Darmian playing out of position as a left wing-back, or even entail a place for Sunderland outcast Emanuele Giaccherini. Lorenzo Insigne, the Napoli winger who was out of the national team picture for some time, may have played his way into the side with a fine performance in that Spain match; he and Antonio Candreva could, in theory, be good wide foils for the hold-up play of Graziano Pelle, but there is no hiding the fact that convincing options do not leap off the page.

THE MANAGER: ANTONIO CONTE

Conte’s appointment at Chelsea was a badly-kept secret for some time but it is out in the open now, with manager and players adamant that it will have no effect on Italy’s campaign. They are probably right – he is far from the only coach among the 24 teams to have advertised that he is stepping down – so Conte can now get on with trying to emulate the success of his three-year spell at Juventus, where he won a hat-trick of Serie A titles. As a player, he was a runner-up with Italy at Euro 2000, when they lost to David Trezeguet’s famous ‘golden goal’.

TOP THREE PLAYERS

Gianluigi Buffon: Now 38, the Juventus goalkeeper is still one of the best around and, as captain, is a superb ambassador for the national team. Remarkably, he should win his 160th cap during Euro 2016 – and plans to carry on until the World Cup.

Juventus' goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon greets fans at the end of the Italian Serie A football match Juventus Vs Carpi on May 1, 2016 at the "Juventus Stadium" in Turin

Image credit: AFP

Giorgio Chiellini: Italy’s formidable centre-backs, all drawn from a Juventus side that conceded just 20 league goals all season, are their star turns and Chiellini, now 31, is as tough and practised as they come.
Graziano Pelle: The Southampton striker did not make his Italy debut until 2014 but scored four goals in his first 11 caps and should lead the line – offering a physical, aerial threat as well as good general play on the ground.

SOCIAL MEDIA STAR

Buffon is hardly your average footballer – as he proved when publishing a moving, poetic tribute to the goal he guards recently. More examples of his erudition can be discovered via his Twitter account.

JONATHAN WILSON’S KILLER KNOWLEDGE

As he takes over Chelsea, the question has been asked whether Conte is a coach who ideologically favours aback three or whether he simply had three fine centre-backs at Juventus and adapted his pressing game to fit. Those three defenders – Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonnucci and Giorgio Chiellini also form the bedrock of his Italy side.

HOW THEY QUALIFIED

Italy eased to qualification from Group H and did not need to thrill in so doing. They finished top by four point from Croatia, with whom they drew twice, and their only other dropped points came via a 2-2 tie in Bulgaria. It was hard going at times, though – 1-0 and 2-1 home wins over Azerbaijan and Malta were not easy on the eye, and a total of 16 goals in 10 matches suggested that the Azzurri may find it difficult to break down top-quality opponents in France.
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