Italy will be lucky to reach KO stage, says Neil Humphreys
Azzurri lack any sort of attacking threat
(Antonio Candreva 27-pen, Daniele De Rossi 71)
In a different time, almost a different life, a young Italian striker was tiptoeing towards individual and international greatness.
Actually, he sprinted towards his destiny, raging against the racist machines in the crowd and driving the Azzurri forward.
Just four years ago, a lifetime ago now, Mario Balotelli's double against Germany earned Italy a place in the Euro 2012 final.
He was only 21 years old and a riotous rebel with a cause, defeating both defenders and racists with devastating aplomb.
In 2012, he owned the Germans. By 2016, he was expected to own the Euros. The continent was there for the taking.
But Balotelli imploded and any hopes of Italian success in France went with him.
The Azzurri's abysmal attacking performance in their lacklustre 2-0 win against Finland yesterday morning (Singapore time) revealed an average nation who'll be lucky to reach the knockout stages.
Getting out of Group E, the Group of Death, looks a tough task in itself. Going any further than the first knockout stage requires a miracle seemingly beyond even the industrious Antonio Conte.
In recent weeks, commentaries lamenting the absence of Balotelli have been commonplace and entirely relevant. His fall mirrors that of Italy's attacking stock.
Balotelli's decline and the dearth of reliable No. 9s could make for a joint obituary.
It's not quite the end of the world for Italy, but they can probably see it from the opponents' penalty box.
Around Christmas, Conte ridiculed Balotelli's statement that the striker couldn't wait for Euro 2016, with the coach insisting the fallen star's only involvement would be in front of a television.
Conte's frustration was palpable then and unmistakable now. His guttural roar when substitute Daniele De Rossi headed in Italy's decisive second goal against Finland betrayed a coach under tremendous pressure.
Less than a week from their opening fixture against Belgium, the Azzurri are without reliable goal-scorers.
De Rossi's fabulous finish, rising high in the box to steer Antonio Candreva's excellent cross just inside the post, was Italy's only goal from open play against opponents already on holiday.
In the second half, Finland substituted striker Teemo Pukki, replacing him with a midfielder and effectively playing 45 minutes with no one up front.
Their minds were on sun-loungers and swimming pools, allowing Italy's back three to essentially have the night off.
And yet, the hosts rarely disturbed the Finnish goalkeeper.
De Rossi, the bearded, scowling monster in midfield, added a tenacious dimension entirely absent until his introduction in the last half an hour.
More importantly, his goal was his 18th for his country. No one in the current Italy squad boasts a higher tally.
The Roma veteran is now 32 and would not have been certain of a starting place, had Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti not succumbed to injury.
Against Finland, the pugnacious battler represented Italy's only decent attacking threat.
Ciro Immobile, the Torino hitman lumbered with the unfortunate surname, lived up to his static moniker. He managed a fresh-air shot and little else.
With the slick hair and sharp jawline, he looked more like a boyband member running around in a charity match than a viable route to Euro glory.
Simone Zaza was marginally better, without ever bothering the cruising Finns. Neither forward is expected to start against Belgium.
That role is reserved for Southampton's Graziano Pelle, who scored against Scotland in the previous friendly.
But he'll be 32 a few days after the Euro 2016 final and laboured against Premier League defences before finding his footing after Christmas.
In a Group of Death that includes Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Belgium's Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke, Eden Hazard and Divock Origi, defences won't be unduly concerned with Pelle.
LACK OF SERVICE
Italy's striking deficiencies are further compounded by an obvious paucity of service.
Candreva picked up a goal and an assist on the right flank and Stephan El Shaarawy enjoyed the odd flash of inspiration on the other side, but the muddled men in the middle had the cutting edge of ice cream left out in the sun.
Emanuele Giaccherini failed to hold down a regular spot at Sunderland, but is now expected to drop anchor at Euro 2016 and stand firm; a willing, but limited understudy suddenly promoted to centre stage.
Conte continues to champion his resolute defence because he really has nothing else to talk about.
Watching Italy evokes messy memories of bad first dates, lots of sterile hand-holding and meaningless possession but nothing in the way of a thrilling climax.
The plodding Italians do not quicken the pulse.
And without a proven centre forward, they run the risk of flat-lining in France.
BY THE NUMBERS
Simone Zaza fired eight shots, including blocked ones, against Finland, a record in a match by an Italian player since November 2013. However, he failed to make them count.
Conte: We will not be defensive
With his side shorn of top-class attackers, you'd expect Italy coach Antonio Conte to play to their strengths - bolster their rock-solid defence and play on the break.
However, Chelsea's incoming manager (above) insists that he will not adopt such tactics at the European Championship, reported football-italia.net.
After his side beat a defensive-minded Finland 2-0 in a friendly in Verona yesterday morning (Singapore time), Conte insists that he will stick to his principles.
He said: "I do everything except counter-attacks. I do not play on the counter. I never even train counter-attacks. It is not in my concept of football.
"When we have the ball, we have our ideas. When we lose the ball, we try to be tight, press the opposition and try to win it back as soon as possible.
"Against Belgium (in their Group E opener on Tuesday morning, Singapore time) we will have our say.
"Do not expect defend and counter in that game, because it is simply not part of how I view football.
"Counter-attacks are when you sit back and then propel yourself forward at pace.
"We've got players who can do that, like Ciro Immobile, Simone Zaza and others, but in my idea of football, we want to play the game and use the ball.
"Today, we met a side that again tried to not play.
"Even when they went 1-0 down, they didn't change their approach.
"With all due respect, evidently we are doing something right if the opposition sit back in their own half and wait for us."
Conte certainly walked the talk with his 3-5-2 formation.
Forwards Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza pressed from the front to keep the Finns on the backfoot from the start.
Conte's side went ahead when winger Antonio Candreva coolly converted a 27th-minute spot-kick after being brought down.
Candreva then delivered an inch-perfect cross for Daniele De Rossi to head home in the 71st minute.
Finland, who failed to qualify for the Euros, packed their defence but were fortunate not to concede more goals as they made several desperate clearances, with goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky keeping out a Zaza sitter in the closing stages.
"We have a week of work left to improve some details and gain even more intensity," Conte told RAI television in a pitchside interview.
"I am very happy with the performance because we had a good rhythm for 60 minutes. This is great bunch of lads who are willing to work hard as a unit and put their hearts on the national team sleeve."
Candreva added: "We are well prepared and in good shape for the European Championship."
Italy, who lost to Spain in the Euro 2012 final and were booted out in the group stage during the 2014 World Cup, will also meet Sweden and Ireland in Group E.
In other Euro warm-up action yesterday morning (Singapore time), Poland, missing star striker Robert Lewandowski, were held 0-0 by Lithuania in Krakow.
The Poles are drawn in Group C in France. They face Northern Ireland on Sunday, followed by Germany on June 16 and Ukraine on June 21.
Meanwhile, Iceland, pitted against Austria, Hungary and Portugal in Group F, easily accounted for Liechtenstein 4-0.
- Wire Services.
“I felt Sirigu needed to play... Gigi Buffon is a guarantee...”
“Obviously, when playing with such attacking wingers, you cannot think that it’s a 3-5-2. It’s a pure 3-3-4 formation, plus the midfielders have to push up too.
“I needed this game to get an idea on the balance of the side and it convinced me we can play with two strikers, two attacking wingers and a midfielder pushing up. It is a hyper-attacking approach and one we can use during a game.”