We take a merciful break from the transfer season to focus on real, actual football, which should hopefully bring a little unity to our somewhat fractured church, unless you're Jonas, our resident Belgian. Nevertheless, Antonio Conte takes a break from pilfering Serie A for any and all available players to steer our beloved Azzurri back to greatness. While Italy made a run to the Euro 2012 finals, times have been rather bleak for the Azzurri since 2006, which was, coincidentally (or perhaps not), the last time Francesco Totti donned the blues.
While Belgium hasn't defeated Italy in a competitive match since 1972, the amount of uncertainty surrounding Conte's tactical decisions and simple lineup choices makes this match anything but a sure thing. If there is one constant to Antonio Conte's Italy, however, it's the quarter of Old Ladies at the back.
Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli have been the foundation upon which Conte's house has been built, providing him with stability, familiarity and excellence. Beyond those four, Conte has channeled his inner Claudio Ranieri, mixing and matching the remaining seven men on the pitch.
In Italy's past two tune ups against Finland and Scotland, Conte has used 12 different players in midfield and attack, ranging from our own Stephan El Shaarawy and Daniele De Rossi to Eder and Simone Zaza; the only men spared from his tinkering have been Antonio Candreva and Emanuele Giaccherini.
Whether this shuffling is due to Conte's tactical uncertainty or simply a lack of faith in his charges, one cannot say, but the effects of this lack of clarity haven't been lost on Italy legend Paolo Rossi:
This uncertainty, the idea any of them could play or be in the stands, is not helping. In terms of keeping the team focused and calm, it does not give an advantage
Rossi pinpointed Conte's lack of options upfront as Italy's greatest concern. With everyone from El Shaarawy and Zaza to Ciro Immobile, Graziano Pelle and Lorenzo Insigne at his disposal, Conte is suffering from a paralysis of mediocrity (no offense, SES, I'm not referring to you). Gone are the days of Totti, Luca Toni and even Vincenzo Iaquinta--Italy just doesn't have that talismanic striker, the one to whom they can turn in the 85th minute of a deadlocked match; in this instance, Italy's whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, at least not up top.
Despite all this confusion, look for Conte to rely on his tried and true 3-5-2. Given his familiarity with the Old Ladies in this lineup, not to mention their collective performance, it really is Italy's best bet for survival, let alone advancement.
And with Belgium standing in their way--one of the odds on favorites to win this tournament--Italy's defense must be at their all time best.
Lock 'em down and grind it out, that's the name of the game because Francesco Totti isn't walking through that door, folks. Italy can win, but it won't be pretty.