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Conte - the complete coach
Italian coach is inspirational leader, tough taskmaster and tactical genius
After months holed up in his "garage", Italy coach Antonio Conte has been finally able to smell the grass and he is relishing every minute of it.
Conte, who spends matches ranting incessantly at his players and the referee from the touchline, is one of the most passionate coaches at Euro 2016 and has led an ageing, technically limited side further than many felt possible.
His inspirational leadership of Italy, who face Germany in the quarter-finals tomorrow morning (Singapore time), is all the more impressive considering that only recently his attitude to the job was being questioned.
Three months ago, Conte announced that he would join Chelsea following Euro 2016, making it perfectly clear why he wanted to leave.
The former Italy midfielder was fed up with what he said was a lack of co-operation from the clubs over the release of players for mid-season training camps and was bored with the long waits between international games.
"I spent four months without any matches and it's been really tough. I didn't want another two years like that," he said.
"I'm very tired of spending so much time in the garage. In the garage, I felt the smell of the machine, of rubber and motor oil. The car inside the garage is far from the grass.
"There are situations in which you are the hammer and in which you are the anvil. We have to understand that the role of the technical staff is of the anvil."
The comments shocked Italians and some felt that Conte had belittled his post as head of the four-time world champions.
But that has all been forgiven following comprehensive 2-0 wins over Belgium and Spain, who were not only beaten but also outplayed despite boasting more gifted individuals.
Conte's motivational powers are there for all to see, thanks to his behaviour on the touchline.
The 46-year-old celebrated the first goal against Belgium with such enthusiasm that he banged his head against substitute forward Simone Zaza and suffered a nose bleed.
Against Spain, he kicked the ball away in fury after his team lost possession, then leapt onto the roof of the substitutes' bench when Italy scored their second goal.
The players admit he is a tough taskmaster.
"Our football is draining, but the statistics show that we're the team who have run the most," said defender Giorgio Chiellini.
"A team like ours need high intensity and pressing. That's the secret to not giving away many chances." - Reuters.
"I dreally did expect this because I have followed Conte and his work over the last few years, starting from Juventus, where he initiated a remarkable winning cycle. He has taken the best from our Italian school, and we should be more proud of that."
- Former Italy goalkeeper Dino Zoff, who is not surprised by Antonio Conte’s good work
Germans will end their Azzurri jinx
Our analyst - and FAS technical director - Michel Sablon tells David Lee that Germany and Italy will cancel out each other but Loew's men will end Azzurri jinx
GERMANY v ITALY
(Tomorrow, 2.50am, Singtel TV Ch 142 & StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven EURO)
Were you surprised by how efficiently Italy beat Belgium and then Spain 2-0? Are they your dark horses to go all the way in Euro 2016?
SABLON: They played very well against Belgium, and then did it again to beat Spain with very strong tactics.
Before Euro 2016, no one expected Antonio Conte to set his team up the way he did with his 3-5-2.
It is truly a special thing which he has introduced, because you can't seem to put this team under pressure.
They play with their two strikers sitting deep when the ball is inside their half.
When they are in possession, their defenders try to reach the two strikers, who are 30 to 40 metres wide apart from each other, directly without playing through the midfielders.
The strikers will then either spread it wide for the wingbacks or lay off to the central midfielders.
Opponents find it hard to cover the space and put pressure on them, because they can't go forward to reduce the space between the lines.
What about the Germans? What do you think makes them tick in major tournaments even if they seemed to be slow off the blocks during the group stages?
They used to be a team that were just full of running, but now, they have added more attacking and finishing qualities to their arsenal.
What makes them so dangerous is their high levels of fitness and concentration down to the additional minutes at the end of the game.
They have the strength and discipline, and they are physically and mentally strong.
Should Joachim Loew be worried that his forwards are not looking as sharp as they can be ahead of this quarter-final against Italy?
If you are talking about Thomas Mueller, who has yet to score in this competition, Loew doesn't have to be that worried if other players from the second line, such as Julian Draxler or Mesut Oezil, can step up and score.
The thing about Germany is when they attack, they don't go at the opponents' defence with just one or two forwards.
It is usually a pack of three or four strong, athletic and powerful players, so they will be confident with what they have.
Italy's key players - Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Candreva - are unlikely to recover in time to face Germany. Thiago Motta is suspended, which means the relatively inexperienced Stefano Sturaro could deputise. Will the Italians be run over in midfield as a result?
De Rossi is a very important player because he has the ability to dictate play, and to lose key players is never good for the team.
But, for Italy, I don't think it will make a big difference who comes in because of the system Conte has in place, which makes them well organised and, as long as the replacements stay disciplined enough to apply the system, they should be fine.
Germany are yet to concede a goal at Euro 2016, while Italy have let in just the one goal in an inconsequential group game against Ireland which they lost 1-0. Can you spot any weakness in either defence?
No, not really. If any team are to score, it will come from a lapse of communication, positioning or technical control.
In such a big game between two such good teams, it will come down to the details.
I sense that you don't think this quarter-final will be settled in 90 minutes?
Yes, I think it will go to extra time or even penalties because both teams look like they are really focused to defend well.
But you know the saying: "Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball and, in the end, the Germans always win."
I think so, too, because they have no injuries and they are quite a complete team.
It is an amazing statistic that Germany have not beaten Italy in eight games at major tournaments, but we have seen some history made at Euro 2016, and they should be able to be part of that, too.
- Michel Sablon, the Football Association of Singapore's technical director, was talking to David Lee. The 68-year-old former Belgian FA technical director is credited for developing the blueprint that produced Belgium's current golden generation of footballers.
BY THE NUMBERS
4 Italy's competitive record against Germany is four wins and four draws.
How Loew's men can overcome the Azzurri
How Germany can finally end Azzurri hoodoo in epic clash
GERMANY v ITALY
(Tomorrow, 2.50am, Singtel TV Ch 142 & StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven EURO)
Joachim Loew was asked about the upcoming quarter-final.
Germany had the pedigree, but Italy had the track record.
Surely, the thought of those big, bad bogeys were haunting his sleepless nights.
"Sleepless nights?" he replied, incredulous at the question. "No, I'm sleeping very well."
As world champions, Germany's coach should sleep easily. As an eternal pragmatist, he could be forgiven a little tossing and turning.
Heavy lies the burden of history, even among Teutonic kings. The Germans shook up the world. But they can't shake off Italy.
The Azzurri have Germany's number, it's tattooed through their DNA.
Europe's old heavyweights have contested eight contests in tournament football.
The Italians have never tasted defeat. Four wins and four draws equal uncertainty for the Germans, tapping away like a neurotic woodpecker at their teak-like confidence.
The two teams meet in the Battle of Bordeaux tomorrow morning (Singapore time) and Loew, who often enjoys a tinker in pivotal knockout games, may need to return to the whiteboard again to end his country's poor record.
Here's how Germany might finally beat off the bogeys.
1 Back three versus back three?
Germany's destruction of Italy in an international friendly in March was more than a dress rehearsal for Euro 2016.
It threw half a monkey off Germans backs, as the 4-1 win was their first over Italy since 1995.
More importantly, Loew opted for three centre backs.
As Spain discovered against Italy in the Round of 16, a pressing game often hits a wall of three - or five when the wingbacks withdraw.
The Italians too struggled against Germany's back three in the friendly, unable to break quickly past more fluid opponents. In the end, they were picked off rather easily.
The temptation must be there for Loew to revert to a back three, a risky proposition certainly, but not necessarily drastic.
Joshua Kimmich's explosive effort against Slovakia was the definitive wingback's performance in all but name. Even if Loew sticks with four, Kimmich and Jonas Hector will be worked harder than they were in the Slovakia stroll.
2 Kroos should run riot
An advertising campaign for Audi once used a German phrase and exported it to the world - Vorsprung durch Technik. Toni Kroos seems to live by it.
The phrase roughly translates as "progress through technology" and, although the midfielder is not a manufactured automaton, he plays as if created by engineers seeking to maximise efficiency through a sleek, captivating model.
Germany are often compared to relentless terminators, more machine than man but, if the old guard were stiff, cold Arnold Schwarzenegger types, Kroos is the one from Terminator 2 made from liquid metal.
He's faster, fluid and he will not stop. He leads the tournament stats with 410 successful passes. Italy's defensive midfielders are there for the taking.
With Daniele De Rossi injured and Thiago Motta suspended, Marco Parolo may replace De Rossi in the anchoring role with Stefano Sturaro perhaps pushed further forward.
Whatever option Antonio Conte chooses, it's a messy one, going against Italy's well-drilled, consistent narrative.
Their midfield is suddenly exposed and vulnerable. Kroos is waiting.
3 Keep an eye on them, Khedira
Coming into the tournament, Italy's forward line consisted of that guy who sounded Brazilian and the really good-looking bloke at Southampton who appeared more suited to the catwalk than a penalty box.
Now they are known as Eder and Graziano Pelle, the most reliable striking duo at Euro 2016.
Italy's back three and flying wingbacks allow the Azzurri to get the ball to the front two quickly, as demonstrated in their fabulous second goal against Spain.
Ironically, the kind of footballer who allowed them to flourish is the kind of footballer now needed to stop them.
In other words, Sami Khedira must play like De Rossi. Shepherd the back four (or three). Sit behind Kroos. Catch the counter-attackers.
Italy exploited the space between Sergio Busquets and his back four and Khedira should heed the warning from the Spaniards. Mind the gap.
4 Release the Draxler
Julian Draxler has the kind of name typical of Bond villains and he scared the living daylights out of the Slovakians.
Apart from providing a greater attacking urgency and feeding Germany's front three, he'll also attack Italy's right side.
It's Conte's tactical weak spot. Parolo, Sturaro and perhaps even Alessandro Florenzi might all be shuffled to accommodate De Rossi's and possibly Antonio Candreva's absence.
Draxler felt like the final piece against Slovakia. He could have the final word against Italy.
BY THE NUMBERS
175 Germany midfielder Toni Kroos’ 175 completed passes in the final third at Euro 2016 are more than that managed by the entire Iceland team (155).
"He is the one responsible for our game’s symmetry. We need creativity and guts to beat Italy."
- Germany coach Joachim Loew on Toni Kroos