Euro 2016 Spotlight:Italy

Four years ago at Euro 2012, Italy surprised a lot of people when they made the final and gave a previously dominant Spain side a strong fight until breaking down late,. They looked like they might finally be starting to climb back up the ladder of powers in the soccer world again.

But then something odd happened — they didn't do that at all. Italy slid backwards again, failing to make it out of the group stage for a second straight World Cup, leading many to wonder just what their future held. How had they fallen? How could they bounce back?

The hiring of former Juventus boss Antonio Conte to manage was a good first step, but he had a huge mountain to climb. A squad that was old at all positions and not good or deep in several key spots represented a huge problem, especially with Italian clubs struggling to reliably produce quality young talents in recent years. Rebuilding Italy into the international powerhouse they once were was going to be quite a challenge, one that would require significant changes not just to the national team itself, but to Italian soccer in a much larger sense.

Those changes were oft-promised and discussed in the early days of Conte's tenure, and in the end we saw ... well, none of them. While a few good young Italian players have emerged in the last few years, their academy system as a whole still seems to be struggling. The national team is still pretty old. The clubs still work more or less as they did when Conte first took over.

The biggest difference is that Conte's tactics and methods allowed the national team to band-aid over their weaknesses for much of his tenure so far, giving them a mostly unencumbered run through qualifying — though they were rarely impressive during that time, and most of their higher-profile friendlies have seen woeful performances from Gli Azzurri.

Nowhere are Italy's troubles on the field more typified than they are up top among their forwards, a position group that Conte and Italy have struggled with for years. There's little in the way of quality talent up top, with one promising young player after another flaming out — some as gloriously and publicly as Mario Balotelli did, but most of the rest just kind of fading away after periods of great promise in their younger years.

Just look at the five forwards Italy are taking to France for Euro 2016: Graziano Pelle, Eder, Simone Zaza, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile. Of those, only Pelle was in any decent form for much of the second half of the season — Eder fell to pieces after a winter transfer to Inter Milan, Zaza hardly played for Juventus and rarely impressed, Insigne's form fell apart after being robbed in his hometown and Immobile has been a shell of his once-promising self ever since he moved to Borussia Dortmund two years ago.

Even that one in-form player (Pelle) is something of a reclamation project, having found success with Southampton after years of mediocrity elsewhere, including several outright bad stints with Italian club teams. None of those five players have more than a dozen senior Italian caps to their name, and the whole group have scored a whopping 11 combined international goals. It's not a strike force that will put fear into the hearts of any of the teams they'll be facing in the Euros, especially with a creativity starved midfield behind them.

Sure, Italy will probably find a way to gut out results in the group stage and advance, reliant on the same counter-attacking soccer that got them through their tougher matches in qualifying. But as things stand, they're not going to be much of a threat against the better teams in the knockout rounds, and they're not going to be an impressive team by any means — and worse, they're probably not going to be a side that inspire much hope for the future in their fans, at least not as things currently stand.

Once the band-aids that Conte has put on this Italy team are removed when he leaves for Chelsea after the tournament, who knows what the future will bring. If Italy take another step back in this tournament, back even farther than they were at the World Cup two years ago and so far back from where they were after Euro 2012, it's going to be awfully hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel for Italy.

Schedule & Results

Monday, Jun. 13
Friday, Jun. 17
Wednesday, Jun. 22
Monday, Jun. 27
Round of 16
Saturday, Jul. 2
Quarterfinal after ET & PKs
1 (5)
1 (6)