Az­zurri have be­lief to go all the way

7 Days in Dubai - - SPORT - EX­CLU­SIVE: By Adrian Back @aidy­back

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

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