Azzurri have belief to go all the way
Before any international football tournament there is the inevitable list of nations that everyone expects to be in the mix come the business end of the competition.
Traditionally Italy have always been on that shortlist. Such is the talent produced in Serie A that it has been impossible to write them off.
Yet just 10 years after winning the World Cup in Germany, few expected Antonio Conte’s side to present a threat at the European Championships in France.
A fact that did not escape the attention of Gianluigi Buffon - one of players who was instrumental in Italy’s triumph over France a decade ago.
“If anything it helped us,” Buffon tells 7DAYS. “We knew we were not among the favourites to win in France, and for Italy that is unusual, because there is normally so much expectation.
“The lack of pressure helped us prepare, but the players always believed we could achieve something special, and we still do.”
Drawn in what appeared a competitive group with one of the tournament favourites Belgium, a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Sweden and a competitive Republic of Ireland outfit, few expected Italy to excel.
Yet, within two games top spot was assured after a hugely impressive 20 win over Belgium and a 1-0 victory over Sweden.
“We knew what a tough group we were in, so it was important to get off to a good start, especially against a team like Belgium who are one of the favourites for the tournament,” says the 38year-old stopper.
“It was good for confidence as was keeping Zlatan quiet as he is one of the best strikers in the world.
“But what happened in the group stage means nothing. Spain have many players we need to keep quiet and from here, every game is like that.”
Certainly Italy could have expected a comparatively easier last-16 tie having topped their group. Especially given the expanded tournament saw some third-placed teams progress. But rather than feel hard done by, Buffon says the whole dressing room is embracing the challenge of beating one of the tournament favourites. “You don’t expect to win your group, and then play Spain, but it is what it is,” he says. “At some point you are going to have to play Spain, or Germany, or France if you want to win the competition, so it might as well be now.
“Spain will present a new challenge but once you reach the knockout stages every team starts to believes, and we have seen that anything can happen.”
Spain’s defeat to the now eliminated Croatia also showed the Italians that there are weaknesses in Vicente del Bosque’s side.
While Alvaro Morata has impressed up front, he will be in for his toughest test to date against an Italian backline marshaled expertly by Buffon.
The vastly experienced keeper has a superb understanding with his fellow Juventus teammates who make up three quarters of the back four.
But Buffon stresses that it is not just his relationship with his Juve teammates, but that the whole squad is
159 The number of caps Buffon has won or Italy since making his debut back in 1997