Antonio Conte has warned his Italy players they will be confronted by “the most complete side in the world” when they try to stop Germany’s extraordinary record of having never been involved in a major tournament since Euro 2004 without reaching at least the semi-finals.
Germany are the only side in Euro 2016 who are yet to concede a goal, establishing themselves as the first team in the history of this competition to keep clean sheets in their opening four games and, in the process, emulating their start to the 1978 World Cup. They have won 14 out of their last 17 tournament games and also beat Italy 4-1 in a friendly in March that led to Conte talking about a “huge gap” existing between the two sides.
That gap appears to have narrowed during Italy’s run to the quarter-finals but Conte still believes it will need one of the all-time Italian performances to eliminate Joachim Löw’s side and at one point the man who will take over as Chelsea’s manager at the end of this tournament stopped himself in case he was sounding almost too effusive. “I don’t want to stress my players out too much,” he explained.
By that stage Conte had already reflected on the “resounding defeat” the last time the sides met and made it clear he anticipated an even more challenging assignment than the one posed by Spain in the last round. “We started this tournament with little credibility in the eyes of everyone,” Conte said. “Everyone thought these were dark days for talent in Italy.
“Fortunately we have shown through hard work, organisation and having 23 top players that we could do something extraordinary against Spain. But now we have to do something absolutely extraordinary.
“I say that because we are playing the No1 side in the world. Germany are a very strong side from every perspective. I think they are better than Spain. They are the reigning world champions and they have everything a strong side can possess: technique, talent, tactics, power, organisation. They are the most complete side in the world at the moment. They are in a very good period in their history, they have principles and organisation. We see Germany as by far and away the outstanding side in the world at this moment. They are like a club side, rather than just a collection of players.”
If that left the sense of the Azzurri straying dangerously close to suffering an inferiority complex, it was not eased by Gianluigi Buffon’s rich eulogy for the Germany goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer. Buffon might be regarded as one of the greats of the profession but Neuer, he declared, was superior. “I say he is better than me because, ultimately, it might be true,” Buffon explained.
Equally it cannot be forgotten that Italy have never lost to Germany in a major tournament, an eight-match sequence including one World Cup final, two World Cup semi-finals and the semi-finals of Euro 2012. “We have spent a lot of time studying the opposition, trying to figure them out, Conte continued. “If I were to go back in time, to a month ago, it would not have been a contest for a number of people looking at the ability of both sides. Now we are here and we deserve to be here. We know there will be huge difficulties but we are ready to meet those head-on to try to overturn the odds because we know they are against us at the outset.”
Mesut Özil certainly sounded confident when he was asked about Italy’s domination against Germany in previous tournaments. “In history it’s always been the case that in the great tournaments we have failed against Italy,” Özil said. “We have to be professional about it and believe we can overcome that record. We want to prove it’s possible to play differently and to win against Italy. We showed that in the friendly. If we concentrate on ourselves, we have the pedigree to win against any team.”
Löw’s belief is that the winner at Stade de Bordeaux “might be favourite for the title” and the Germany manager was not convinced by reports that Daniele De Rossi will be unfit. “With Italy you always have to be aware there can be a surprise,” he said.
What can be said with certainty is that both sides could be hurt by Uefa’s disciplinary system, with any player who is booked twice in the opening five matches of the tournament missing the next game. Italy have 11 players – Buffon, De Rossi, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Mattia De Sciglio, Éder, Lorenzo Insigne, Graziano Pellè, Salvatore Sirigu and Simone Zaza – who would be ruled out of the semi-final with another yellow card. For Germany Jérôme Boateng, Sami Khedira, Mats Hummels, Joshua Kimmich and Özil are vulnerable the same way. “It shouldn’t be a concern,” Conte insisted. “Life will go on only for the winners, so bookings and suspensions are the last thing on our mind.”
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