Ageing Italy winds back the clock

Written by Ben Blaschke

As we predicted last week, the “group of death” at Euro 2016 is Group E, comprising Italy, Sweden, Belgium and the unpredictable Republic of Ireland. World number two Belgium are the highest ranked side in this year’s tournament after a strong showing in qualifying but they showed they still have some work to do if they are to turn their potential into trophies after a 2-0 loss to the Italians in their opening game yesterday.

The fanfare surrounding these two sides couldn’t have been more different. Despite reaching the final four years ago, Italy’s 23-man squad arrived in France with little fanfare aside from a few question marks over their 30-year-old number nine, Graziano Pellè.

On explaining his squad selection of the squad, coach Antonio Conte said, “I chose the players who gave me the most guarantees in relation to my ideas”.

Italy has the fifth-oldest squad in the tournament with an average age of 28 years, 10 months and 19 days. Experience and versatility were considered over inspiration and individual ability. If they win, they win as a team – as demonstrated in their performance against a Belgian side boasting superstars Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.

Belgium, for their part, proved surprisingly sterile under unexciting manager Marc Wilmots and face an uphill battle to progress. Certainly they are no sure thing against a Swedish side led by star striker Zlatan Ibrahimović and an Irish side renowned for their fight.

But while Wilmots seems to have little idea how to gel his talented individuals into a champion team, Conte showed that Italy remain a force to be reckoned with.

It may still be a fraction early to label this aging Italy side the “dark horse” of the tournament, but it is clear they are aiming high.