May 24, 2016

    Nearly 5-decade drought for the Azzurri


    ITALY won the World Cup in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006 but they have a love-hate relationship with the European Championships.

    Since their Euro triumph on their debut in 1968 in a two-leg win over Yugoslavia, there has been nothing since.

    The Azzurri have finished runners-up twice, including in 2012 when then world champions Spain came up with a 4-0 hammering in Kiev.

    This will be Italy's ninth participation, having qualified for every Euro since after failing to make it to Euro 94 in Sweden.

    Morale was at an all-time low after a disappointing first-round exit from the 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa.

    Italy coach Antonio Conte, who will take over at Chelsea following Euro 2016, has left no stone unturned in his bid to forge a competitive Italy side, although a solid and reliable starting XI has yet to emerge.

    With the clock ticking down to Italy's first Group E game against Belgium in Lyon on June 13, he is still experimenting with personnel and tactical formations.

    Doubts remain over ageing New York City midfielder Andrea Pirlo, who returned from international retirement following Brazil 2014, when Conte was appointed.

    His understudy, Paris Saint Germain's Marco Verratti, is expected to be Italy's linchpin in a midfield that should also see Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), Antonio Candreva (Lazio), Marco Parolo (Lazio) and Roberto Soriano (Sampdoria) compete for places.

    AC Milan's on-loan Liverpool striker Mario Balotelli, the semi-final hero of Euro 2012, is expected to miss the tournament after being left on the sidelines by Conte.

    Although Balotelli is still only 25, Conte has rejuvenated his attack.

    Stephan El Shaarawy, Lorenzo Insigne, Simone Zaza and Federico Bernardeschi should join Brazil-born striker Eder and Graziano Pelle for a tournament that could see several ageing stars bow out.

    Italy meet Belgium, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland in Group E - and recent history suggests that it is the Belgians who are the biggest challenge.

    In 21 meetings with the Red Devils, Italy emerge on top with 13 wins, four draws and four defeats.

    But thanks to stars like Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and Radja Nainggolan, Marc Wilmots' side have risen to No. 2 in the world rankings behind Argentina.