Buffon is vital for Italy, says Gary Lim
Veteran Buffon the rock in a defence that will be crucial to Italy's chances
BELGIUM v ITALY
(Tomorrow, 3am, Singtel TV Ch 142, StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven Euro)
They have been written off, and ridiculed.
Italy don't stand a chance in Euro 2016's Group of Death, the experts would have us believe.
Yet, some optimism hovers over the Italian camp.
The Azzurri are too experienced to be cowed into submission.
Gianluigi Buffon exuded a picture of calm when he spoke ahead of Italy's opening clash with Belgium at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
A veteran speaking through battle scars after years battling in various fields throughout the world, he reminded everyone of Italy's traditional strength.
Alluding to their trademark teamwork and never-say-die mentality, the 38-year-old goalkeeper said quite simply: "Italy's strength has always been our group.
"We are a very united group who, with humility, sacrifice and a good technical and tactical preparation, can also have our say in France."
In order for that to happen, Italy's 157-cap skipper will have to once again show the way.
For the foundation of their charge at Euro 2016 lies in a defence where he stands as its beating heart, with an expected three-man backline acting as his shield.
Age might have slowed Buffon down a little, but he is still one of the best around.
In the 2015/16 season, the 2006 World Cup winner kept 21 clean sheets in the Serie A to help Juventus to the title.
His tally was six better than both Samir Handanovic of Inter Milan and Pepe Reina of Napoli, who were joint-second in the clean sheets' table.
But Buffon provides more than simply prowess between the posts.
Italy look to him for leadership and organisation.
They need him more than ever, considering the tricky tests ahead.
Matches against Sweden and the Republic of Ireland follow the opening battle with tournament darkhorses Belgium.
Barring injuries and suspension, the three men expected to provide their goalkeeper with protection in France are Andrea Barzagli, 35, Leonardo Bonucci, 29, and Giorgio Chiellini, 31, who with Buffon form a Juventus block at the base.
The transition from club to international football has never looked easier.
Five years of playing together in the same team week in, week out, has developed a telepathy between them that more than makes up for a lack of youthful energy and speed.
That coach Antonio Conte admitted that this was probably the only part of his formation set in stone speaks volumes of his faith in his defensive system.
A strong Italian defence will be more important than ever before because there is much uncertainty over the other departments.
If Buffon had sounded a little too cautious in his assessment of his own side, it's because the veteran of five World Cups and three European Championships probably can't recall a tournament in which the national squad appear so stretched.
Injuries have robbed the Azzurri of two of their most influential midfielders, Paris St Germain's Marco Verratti and Juventus' Claudio Marchisio.
Daniele de Rossi is the familiar face and reassuring presence in the engine room.
But at the age of 32, and without the tireless Marchisio and the retired Andrea Pirlo around him, de Rossi will be required to do much back-breaking work.
Poor form and a lack of quality coming through the ranks have also seen Conte's options up front cut down drastically.
The likes of Simone Zaza, Graziano Pelle and Eder certainly don't inspire confidence.
Italy's salvation comes at the other end of the field, where their talisman continues to stand tall some 19 years after making his international debut.
Buffon will be the calming influence.
His presence alone should make Italy's opponents think twice about writing them off.
Italy’s strength has always been our group. We are a very united group who, with humility, sacrifice and a good technical and tactical preparation, can also have our say in France.
— Italy skipper and veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, 38
I will retire when Buffon does — and he just signed a new deal, so have I and I’m happy.
— Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas, 35, when asked about retirement