Italy counting on Pelle to live up to No. 9 shirt
Conte, struggling for sure-fire options, needs striker to live up to No. 9 shirt
(Graziano Pelle 57)
All eyes will again be on the man wearing Italy's No. 9 shirt this summer.
Graziano Pelle is unlikely to stir the senses at Euro 2016 in the same way Mario Balotelli once did.
Those mania-induced antics of shirt tearing and muscle flexing which characterised the Azzurri's run to the final four years ago, do not and are never likely to become a feature of the Southampton striker's repertoire.
But, following a 1-0 friendly win over Scotland in Malta yesterday morning (Singapore time), it is Pelle - not Balotelli - who will head to France in a fortnight's time with the hopes and dreams of a nation resting firmly on his shoulders.
The symmetry between the pair's respective rise and fall since Italy's appearance at Euro 2012 has been striking.
Outcast at Liverpool and unwanted at AC Milan, following a slight return on loan, Balotelli has remained saddled with his status as football's enfant terrible.
For all his moments of inspired brilliance, the one-time Manchester City marksman has continued to prove more maverick than he could ever be considered magnificent.
His replacement, meanwhile, has lit up Italy since his belated arrival on the international scene, just two years ago.
Back in Malta, where it all began, Pelle put Scotland to the sword yesterday morning with an emphatic fifth goal in nine outings for his country.
The 30-year-old has not always been this prolific; his lengthy goal drought for Southampton ended only in mid-March, after a spell of four months and 13 games.
Intent has remained and continuing a clinical streak for Italy could not have been better timed, with Antonio Conte currently struggling for sure-fire options ahead of the Finals in France.
The incoming Chelsea manager's ability to set up a team bristling with potency will be a sight for sore eyes for his future subjects at Stamford Bridge.
Winless in their previous four games and with a midfield decimated by injury, however, Conte will have it all to do if he is to assemble a force that can reckon with the likes of Belgium, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland in Group E next month.
Italy's lack of clinical edge remains an ongoing area of concern.
Eder's loan spell at Inter Milan was marginally more promising than Balotelli's across town but, with a solitary goal in his last 15 outings, expecting a remarkable transformation while wearing a different shade of blue was always an ambitious ask.
Emanuele Giaccherini was even more profligate; fluffing a series of gilt-edged chances that should have made the scoreline reflect the hosts' comfortable dominance.
Only three of the 14 shots amassed against Gordon Strachan's side in Malta were on target.
That Pelle's breakthrough arrived just three minutes shy of the hour mark was indicative of why Italy have failed to gather serious momentum ahead of their foray into France.
Conte could be forgiven for feeling that he will be taking a knife to the gunfight that is Euro 2016's "Group of Death".
“I am happy for the goal... but we lack sharpness after a lot of hard work in training. We can do better... we need to work really hard.”
- Italy striker Graziano Pelle
“We’re still in construction mode and we’re doing it little by little... we know there’s a lot of work to do.”
- Italy coach Antonio Conte
- ITALY: Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Antonio Candreva (Marco Parolo 62), Alessandro Florenzi, Daniele de Rossi (Jorginho 67), Emanuele Giaccherini (Giacomo Bonaventura 80), Matteo Darmian (Federico Bernadesch 60), Graziano Pelle (Simone Zaza 67), Eder (Lorenzo Insigne 60)
- SCOTLAND: David Marshall, Callum Paterson (Christophe Berra 46), Russell Martin, Grant Hanley, Charlie Mulgrew, Matt Phillips (Oliver Burke 71), Darren Fletcher, James McArthur (Craig Bryson 83), Ikechi Anya (Steven Naismith 71), Ross McCormack (Steven Fletcher 46), Matt Ritchie