Antonio Conte charged back towards the Italy dugout, leapt up at the roof and tried to scramble on top of it. The manager’s eyes were wild and crazy. He then bolted for the pitch, stopping to embrace the wing‑back Mattia De Sciglio, before heading towards the celebrating throng.
Graziano Pellè’s injury-time goal had just guaranteed victory against Spain to set up a quarter-final against Germany on Saturday and Conte appeared ready to jump on to the pile-on. This is what it looks like when one of his plans comes together – a release of all that intensity – and how it did here – in a game of enormous significance for Italy.
Conte was confined to his technical area – or thereabouts – but he was the central figure of an absorbing tie. There was even the moment on 75 minutes when the ball came towards him and he hammered it away like a cynical 1970s Italian defender. He was lectured by the Turkish referee, Cuneyt Cakir, and saluted by the Italy fans.
Italy have been hiding. Their training base in Montpellier has resembled a maximum security stockade. Nobody on the outside could see anything, apart from the first, ever meaningless, 15 minutes of training sessions. Conte had been plotting and when he emerged at the Stade de France he needed to have the blueprint for a defining victory. And he did. Spain have tormented Italy in the recent past, beating them in the final of the previous two European Championships and even doing so at the 2013 Confederations Cup. Nobody in Italy cares about that competition but they did on this occasion because the game was against Spain.
This was Italy’s revenge. And it was Conte’s triumph. The unusual thing about the soon-to-be Chelsea manager is that he is the star of this Italy set-up. Some say it is how he likes it; that he wants control and malleable players, rather than talented mavericks who might create problems. There are very few of the latter in his squad. One thing has been plain during his time in charge of Italy – he wants his voice to be heard the loudest.
His obsession with secrecy borders on paranoia. He ordered massive screens to be erected at Coverciano, the Italian training centre near Florence, so that prying eyes might be kept out. It also reinforces his focus and commitment. Conte ordered his players to work until they dropped and they did. So did he. “Our fitness coach did suggest hooking me up to a GPS system to see how many kilometres I cover, and at what intensity level,” Conte said, with a smile.
Had Conte been keeping a great tactical secret, which he had finessed behind closed doors in Montpellier? Not really. The lineup was as expected and so was the 3-5-2 formation, although it sometimes switched to 5-2-3 with Emanuele Giaccherini making the extra man up front on the left.
The wing-backs, Alessandro Florenzi and De Sciglio, pushed extremely high and wide and, with so many different players who could bring the ball out from the back, Spain struggled to press in packs. Conte’s two strikers, Pellè and the jet-heeled Éder, worked hard and it was almost hypnotic to watch them all executing their roles in such harmony.
Conte ran the gamut of emotions in his technical area, which was big but not big enough to contain him. There were times when his cajoling of his players took him well beyond its limits. Cakir, who had an erratic game, did little to ease his stress levels.
Conte had planned this rigorously in the days since the 1-0 win over Sweden on 17 June, which had ensured Italy’s progress as the winners of Group E, and such was their command in the first half the game ought to have been over at the interval. David de Gea, the Spain goalkeeper, kept his team in it and Giorgio Chiellini’s shinned finish was the least that Italy deserved.
Conte sought to make the pitch as big as possible, with not only the wing‑backs but sometimes the midfielders Marco Parolo and Giaccherini getting chalk on their boots. The result was space and options when Italy had the ball but, when they did not, they were quick to close down their opponents. There was plenty of old-school, hands-on Italian defending. Thiago Motta took out another substitute, Lucas Vázquez, off the ball as the clock ran down and Spain tried to break. Motta was booked and he will miss the Germany game through suspension. With Daniele De Rossi limping off with a hip injury, Conte could have a problem in defensive midfield.
Spain were much improved in the second half. Italy relied upon the counterattack and they had their chances, but it was Spain who had the better ones. There were nervy moments for Italy, none more so than when Gerard Piqué seemed certain to score in the 89th minute only to be denied by Gianluigi Buffon. This, however, was a deserved victory. For Italy. And for Conte.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010