Mark O’Haire’s Euro Tips – Italy v Sweden
Italy upset the odds and silenced the doubters as they began their Euro 2016 campaign with victory over much-fancied Belgium in Lyon.
Italy v Sweden, Friday 17th June 2016 (14.00), ITV, RTE Two
The victory has sent the Azzurri to the top of the Group E standings and on the cusp of qualification to the knockout stages ahead of their contest with Sweden on Friday.
The Swedes failed to fire against Ireland at the Stade de France but managed to pinch a point thanks to Ciaran Clark’s unfortunate own goal. The equaliser came from one of the few moments of quality from Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Blue-Yellow skipper (and his team-mates) will need a vast improvement here.
Italy – described by Gabriel Marcotti as the worst Azzurri side in 60 years – were impressive in their opener despite head coach Antonio Conte admitting pre-tournament, “It isn’t a good time for our football”.
Almost Perfect Azzuri
But goals from Emanuele Giaccherini and Graziano Pelle did the business with former Italy striker Gianluca Vialli saying post-match, “I don’t want to brag, but we were almost perfect”.
Indeed, the victory was a result of superior organisation and discipline. Tactically astute Conte masterminded the success thanks to meticulous pre-match planning and the formidable nature of his stubborn Juventus-centric defence.
The Azzurri went unbeaten through qualifying (W7-D3-L0) but rarely enthused. However, on Monday night Italy looked clinical on the counter-attack and solid as a rock at the back despite conceding 18 shots to Belgium.
Fielding the oldest starting XI in the history of the European Championship (31 years 169 days), Conte’s charges kept their third successive clean sheet for the first time since June 2013. In doing so, Italy also enhanced a rather unimpressive record (W7-D5-L3) in 15 outings since 2015.
A meeting with Sweden is likely to present an alternative challenge for the Azzurri. Whilst Belgium were happy to take the game to Italy, Conte’s troops will now be expected to initiative control and tempo against the Blue-Yellow. It’s a situation I’m not entirely sure they’re capable of dealing with.
Italy failed to enthuse in qualifying when dealt with similar situations – most notably against Malta – and only once in their last 37 internationals have they scored more than twice – against Azerbaijan. That lack of firepower has made them vulnerable to nations that are happy to sit back and defend.
Commitment, passion and determination were much in evidence of a scrappy Swedish encounter with Ireland as Erik Hamren’s men once again relied upon a Zlatan intervention to pick up a result.
The Blue-Yellow were below-par for large swathes of the match and under the cosh during the first 45 minutes. Although the Swedes pressured for an equaliser, they failed to land a shot-on-target across the full 90 minutes with Ibrahimovic often a peripheral figure.
Martin Olsson was a constant threat down the left, never missing an opportunity to pour forward from full-back and deliver crosses into the box but on the whole, Blue-Yellow fans were left deflated by a flat and largely lifeless performance. A repeat here could prove fatal.
It’s worth remembering Sweden finished 10 points adrift of Austria in qualifying and required a play-off (and another Zlatan intervention) to reach the finals. And although the side have suffered just one loss in 11 now – plus five clean sheets in 11 – they appear far too reliant on their mercurial leader.
I’m happy to reel off a repeat of the stats that support the view that no nation at Euro 2016 is more reliant on just one player than Sweden.
Since Euro 2012, Ibrahimovic has scored in 19 of Sweden’s 22 meaningful matches, laying on seven assists, meaning he’s played a major role in 75% of the Blue Yellows’ competitive goals across the last four years.
When Zlatan hasn’t scored or assisted, Sweden have failed to win a game in that four-year sample. And of the eight matches he’s missed, Hamren’s men picked up just a solitary victory, against lowly Lichtenstein.
Whilst I have my doubts over Italy’s ability to continually to produce the goods – one swallow doesn’t make a summer after all – especially when arriving as clear market favourites, the Azzurri should boast the ability and know-how to squeeze out a maximum point return here.
But rather than take the 5/6 on an Italian win, it’s worth digging a little deeper for a bigger price to cheer on. Nine of Italy’s last 13 competitive matches have had fewer than three goals, as have 12 of their last 16 games at European Championships and World Cups.
With that in mind, backing Italy to win 1-0 looks a decent angle to take at 9/2
…as well as the 12/5 on a one-goal margin victory. Since 2011 the Azzurri have only beaten Ireland, Malta, San Marino, Norway Azerbaijan and of course Belgium by more than a solitary strike.
Italy to win 1-0 (9/2)
Italy to win by one-goal (12/5)
*Prices correct at time of publication