ITALY, March 25 – Antonio Conte has pledged Azzurri fans can expect a cohesive and patriotic Italy side at this summer’s Euro 2016 championships after an encouraging 1-1 draw with Spain that ended the European champions’ seven-game winning run.
Conte, who will quit his Italy post after the tournament amid reports he is moving to Chelsea, deployed a rarely seen 3-4-3 formation that included a few surprise additions at Udinese’s Stadio Friuli on Thursday.
But the doubts raised before the game gave way to cautious optimism as a new-look Italy, who have failed to make it past the first round of the past two World Cups, showed some great touches on their way to an encouraging draw.
Spain, who beat Italy 4-0 in the final of Euro 2012, hardly broke sweat at the newly-refurbished Stadio Friuli. Their most notable incident of the first half was coach Vicente Del Bosque comically tumbling to the ground after he backed into the linesman.
Indeed, the 2010 world champions failed to get a shot on goal in the first half of a game since 2013 and a World Cup qualifier with Belarus.
But that took little away from an Italy performance that has given Conte belief that, in France this summer, there will be no repeat of the disjointed campaign that saw Italy limp home from Brazil two years ago.
“I got the answers I was looking for but we have to keep our heads down and keep on working with the enthusiasm that the lads have been showing,” said Conte.
“I can promise this to all the Italian people: we will have a team, and a great group of players, who want to fight for this shirt.”
Eyebrows were raised before the game when Conte’s team sheet was revealed.
Former Sunderland forward Emanuele Giaccherini, amid a cracking season with Bologna, was handed his first Italy start since the Confederations Cup in 2013.
In the absence of clubmate Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci was the only Juventus player in a three-man defence that had Davide Astori (Fiorentina) and Matteo Darmian (Manchester United) on the flanks.
Paris Saint Germain midfielder Thiago Motta made his first start since the 2014 World Cup in central midfield, while Lazio winger Antonio Candreva was the brightest spark in a three-man attack alongside Southampton striker Graziano Pelle and Inter Milan’s Eder.
Candreva, with a long-distance effort, and Giaccherini, whose crisp volley was blocked by Juan Mata, threatened in the opening half when Eder’s soft volley from Pelle’s lay-off proved no trouble for De Gea.
It was the introdution of Lorenzo Insigne, who replaced Eder on 51 minutes, that added a crucial ingredient and ended De Gea’s unbeaten run after the Napoli winger slid in to toe poke Giaccherini’s smart ball in at the back post.
“It was a great performance and I’m happy for my goal, it’s just a shame about the result,” said Insigne, who now looks to be a firm part of Conte’s plans after a recent “misunderstanding” between the pair.
“The coach and I have spoken and ironed things out. Playing for Italy gives me huge pride and I always give my all.
“If we keep on going like this, and listening to the coach, I think we can do well. In any case, whoever goes to the Euro 2016 has to sweat for the jersey.”
When asked about his inclusion, Giaccherini said: “I wasn’t surprised to start because the coach knows I’m having a good season and he told me I’d be starting.
“Spain are a difficult team to play against, but when you get a chance like this you have to put everything into it, a bit of character and personality.”
Italy’s goalscoring joy was short-lived.
Only three minutes after Insigne’s opener, 35-year-old Athletic Bilbao striker Aduriz slammed the ball into the roof of the net from a yard out when Gianluigi Buffon spilled Juventus teammate Alvaro Morata’s header from a free kick.
It was perhaps a reminder that Spain, who were not in top gear on Thursday, remain a formidable threat for this summer.
Italy’s young guns, meanwhile, face the arguably bigger challenge of meeting world champions Germany in Munich on Tuesday.