If the Italian national team were sponsored by a television programme there would only be one choice. It’ll Be Alright on the Night should be the motto sewn into the shirts. For whatever bloomers, glitches or horrors they suffer immediately before major finals tend to be an unreliable gauge to how they will fare in these tournaments.
Gianluigi Buffon knows that from the experience of winning the 2006 World Cup. Equally, no-one expected the Italians to reach the final of the last European Championship, where they were soundly trounced by Spain. The 38-year-old goalkeeper, who stated last night he wants and expects to become the first man to play in six World Cup finals, is in no doubt his national team are about to transform themselves once more for a tournament. Alamingly, for Scotland supporters, he believes that turnaround will start against Gordon Strachan’s side tonight in Malta’s national stadium; the island a home from home for Italy in lying just south of Sicily.
“This is the first game approaching the Euros and we are treating it seriously,” said the Juventus keeper. “There is strong competition in the squad I feel it’s healthy. For experienced players it’s good to have that competition. This time Italy are not favourites but we will find the trigger to do something that will surprise everyone.”
They need a starting pistol to shake themselves from their recent torpor. Antonio Conte’s side haven’t won in four matches. Meanwhile, the country’s football public are hardly wowed by the manager’s decision to vacate his post for Chelsea following the French finals, or that Andrea Pirlo has been left out of the squad after Conte claimed the competitive edge of the 37-year-old had been blunted by playing in the US.
On top of that, they are beset with injuries. Conte had to justify himself to the Italian media in the Ta’ Qali Stadium last night over the fact he will restrict to three the number of players he selects who are are carrying knocks when he pares down the 30-man squad in Malta to 23 for the Euros. Riccardo Montolivo and Thiago Motta, two injury concerns, were declared “OK” by Conte, with a caveat. “They are back training with us, but they won’t play [against Scotland]. We won’t risk them,” he said. It is a different story with Daniele De Rossi. “He still has a problem with his Achilles tendon but he will play and we will see how it goes.”
None of this seemed to cause the unflappable Conte any angst. “I am very satisfied with the players in training. All are showing me that they want to go to Euros,” he said. “I have had time to train with the players, I can transmit my ideas and I feel it’s going well. Some players are coming back from injuries, even if they are important players, they have to show they are fit. I have to make a selection. That is the worst thing for a coach, even if they are friends you have to leave some out. I will talk with the doctors and they will decide.”