Neil Humphreys: Four things Italy are doing right
Our columnist analyses what makes Conte's Azzurri tick
Written off before the tournament started, Italy were considered a ragtag bunch of journeymen and second-raters.
On Sunday morning (Singapore time), the Italians face Germany in the quarter-finals. No one is writing Antonio Conte's men off now.
Here are the key factors behind the rise of Italy.
1 Drill, drill, drill
Antonio Conte acknowledged his frenzied dugout antics.
"The fitness coach did consider giving me a GPS monitor to monitor how many kilometres I cover on the touchline, while monitoring my intensity levels," he said.
But there's a method behind the mad dashing. Moments before Italy scored their opening goal against Spain yesterday morning (Singapore time), Conte was remonstrating with his players, telling them where to stand and when to feint. They followed orders and scored.
Later, he screamed at Daniele de Rossi to release the ball quicker, which appeared harsh as the midfielder had entirely neutralised Andres Iniesta.
Conte drills with the forensic detail of an oil prospector.
Every manager comes equipped with a tactical template, but Italy's execution is close to flawless.
As a tenacious midfielder, Conte gave no quarter and his tigerish attitude and dedication to specific duties run through the most drilled team at the tournament.
2 Greater talent than meets the eye
Listening to Conte underline his side's artistic qualities once again, there was an element of a sly poker player bluffing away his strong hand.
"There's no hiding the fact that this is not the rosiest period for Italian football talent," he said, before emphasising the supremacy of both Germany and Spain.
He isn't wrong, but Graziano Pelle's second goal is surely a contender for the most exhilarating, flawlessly executed counter-attack of the tournament.
Emanuele Giaccherini almost scored with a bicycle kick. There were back-heels and deft dribbles, particularly from Mattia de Sciglio and Juventus' imperious backline continue to elevate defending as an art form.
Italy don't have a Roberto Baggio or an Andrea Pirlo, but they have more than enough pedigree to go far in such an erratic, unpredictable tournament.
3 Another brick in the wall
Conte took great pleasure in reminding the assembled media that the Italians' defensive approach was once considered ugly and involved "animals".
"Italy are not an ugly football side," he insisted, basking in the moment and savouring the discomfort of critics. "If you have defenders like our 'Juventus four'. that must be a plus. How could it not be?"
There aren't a team left in the tournament who couldn't find a place for one, two or even all three of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli.
Age cannot whither them. Their longstanding club relationship only sharpens the collective telepathy.
The trio are so secure in their defensive solidity that they granted Antonio Candreva the chance to surge forward and make the best 11 side in the group stages.
De Sciglio enjoyed a similar creative freedom against Spain. They've always taken care of defensive business. More importantly, they take care of their own.
4 A man among devoted men
At the final whistle, the Italians sprinted towards one man, the only man.
In the dressing room, Conte led the celebrations. He commands absolute respect from grateful players.
"Conte gets better with every game," said Bonucci. "This team are shorn of real talent, and we have to maximise resources and Conte is a master in this area."
That's man-management. Tactics and training drills were not patented by Conte, but he blends them with the best dressing-room chemistry in recent Italian history.
He said so himself: "I've waged a battle in the last couple of years, to emphasise the need to be a team from every perspective.
"We've worked intensely on technique and tactics, but the most important thing was to create a club culture, like a team of players who work for each other, week in and week out.
"We've succeeded on that score."
In Conte, they trust.
We hope that it will be the same (celebration) after the next game. It will be a huge match against the reigning world champions. They have great players. We have to be 23 men and 23 dreamers. Today we dreamed how the match would go and it did.
— Italy defender Leonardo Bonucci, whose side face Germany in the quarter-finals
The fall of Spain
1 Del Bosque out of touch
During the press conference, Vicente del Bosque was asked three times if he would be retiring.
He swatted away each question with the grace of an opening batsman, but the writing is on the wall.
In fact, it's been the same writing for four games in a row.
Four matches played, four identical line-ups, Spain became weary and predictable.
Those nations who secured qualification after two games made wholesale changes for the final group game, but del Bosque (above) stuck hard and fast with an ageing side.
Antonio Conte rested half the Italian line-up against the Irish and lost that particular battle but won the war against Spain, the game that really mattered.
Most damningly, del Bosque appeared to have no alternatives, no back-up plan when his recognisible 4-3-3 faltered.
Spain's substitutions came far too late, long after it became clear that Conte was using his wingbacks to stretch the play away from the Spanish mavericks in central midfield.
2 Too safe, too predictable
Cesc Fabregas was alarmingly ordinary against Italy, out of sorts and easily subdued.
But Koke never left the bench. The 24-year-old Atletico Madrid star offered youth and uncertainty, but del Bosque played it safe.
Similarly, Paco Alcacer, Spain's top scorer in qualifying, was left out altogether, along with Diego Costa.
Costa, the inconsistent Chelsea striker, lacked the form of Alvaro Morata, but a bullying cameo role might have at least dragged Italy's indomitable back three around a bit.
3 Too dependent on Iniesta
Spain are not a one-man team, but they are overly reliant on the quiet, unassuming Barcelona genius.
Del Bosque hasn't replaced the dominant Andres Iniesta-Xavi Hernandez creative axis and perhaps no manager could.
But, at 32, Iniesta (above) was tasked with too much creative responsibility.
He ruled against lesser sides like Turkey but, Daniele de Rossi, with able support from Emanuele Giaccherini, shut him down and decommissioned the Spanish brain's trust.
If you stop Iniesta, you stop Spain from playing football.
4 Too old, too stubborn to walk away
Del Bosque's men defeated all before them, except the clock.
The back four are all close to, or over, 30. Nolito and Fabregas are both 29, Iniesta is 32 and David Silva, a strangely indifferent presence, is 30.
Only Alvaro Morata, at 23, offers the promise of better things to come.
Del Bosque will shoulder most of the blame for not blooding younger players earlier, but breaking up is hard to do.
For those few unassailable talent that lift the game to new heights, losing isn't the hardest thing. It's walking away.
Del Bosque, Iniesta and Co. made the wrong decisions in France. Now, they must be convinced to make the toughest one of them all. - NEIL HUMPHREYS
We have to be realistic, we don’t have the same level as when we were world and European champions. We have to accept it and be critical to get to the World cup in Russia in good condition and at a better level.
— Spain defender Gerard Pique, on his side’s decline