From the nation that brought us catenaccio, there has been a whiff of defensiveness about the Italians this week as they ponder their peculiar status at Euro 2024.

When they launch their campaign against Albania in Dortmund on Saturday night, it will be from the somewhat jarring position of being defending champions of whom far less is expected than normal.

If they are to find familiar comforts in this tournament, it will be as dark horses. That has certainly been the consensus view aimed at a young group featuring only nine survivors from the triumphant class of 2021 and which bears little resemblance to the squad that beat England in the final at Wembley.

Progressing from a tough group which features Spain and Croatia will be the minimum requirement for their 65-year-old manager Luciano Spalletti, who only replaced Roberto Mancini last August. But retaining their crown is perceived as close in its level of improbability as Spalletti’s delivery of the Serie A title to Napoli in 2023.

It is an assessment that has evidently scaled the fences of the training base at Iserlohn, where one legend of the past, Gianluigi Buffon, who is now Italy’s head of delegation, felt compelled to say this week: ‘This is an underestimated but very competitive national team.’

Luciano Spalletti’s Italy take on Albania in their European Championship opener on Saturday

Italy come into the Euros as a surprisingly unfancied side despite being the reigning champions

Italy come into the Euros as a surprisingly unfancied side despite being the reigning champions

Buffon’s appointment to that role last year brought some stardust into the camp and it was followed earlier this month by Spalletti’s invitation to a cluster of great former playmakers — Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Gianni Rivera and Giancarlo Antognoni — to attend training.

Class of ’21 survivors 

Gianluigi Donnarumma

Alex Meret

Giovanni Di Lorenzo

Alessandro Bastoni

Jorginho

Nicolo Barella

Bryan Cristante

Federico Chiesa

Giacomo Raspadori 

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The hope was they would collectively inspire a ‘raising of the bar,’ but their presence also served as a reminder that the current crop is lacking a global name. For the Azzurri, that is quite unusual. And yet there is significant quality in Spalletti’s team, particularly in their young spine of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Alessandro Bastoni, Nicolo Barella and Gianluca Scamacca, who flopped at West Ham but scored 19 goals for Atalanta in the Europa League-winning campaign just concluded.

Around them they have one of the world’s best left backs in Federico Dimarco along with Arsenal midfielder Jorginho and Federico Chiesa, the talented Juventus winger who was in the team of the tournament in 2021 and then lost almost 400 days out of the next three years to injury. He at least has rediscovered some rhythm in the past season.

What the Italians most conspicuously lack is an attacking focal point in Spalletti’s 3-4-2-1 because Scamacca’s club form has not yet translated to the bigger stage.

With one goal in 16 caps, he has hardly seemed a natural successor to Paolo Rossi, Toto Schillaci and Christian Vieri. So, while the loss of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci to retirement has left an immense void at the back, it is at the other end where the doubts lie.

Indeed, of their 16 goals in qualifying, which included defeats home and away against England, no fewer than 12 were scored against Malta and North Macedonia.

For Scamacca, accused of being ‘lazy’ by Spalletti earlier this year, it is a case of slow burn. He chimed with the common theme this week in saying: ‘We are a young group, a new cycle has begun and it took some time to bring out our strength. We are ready and our strength will come out in this European Championship.

‘I would like to emulate the 2021 group that won the European Championship and the 2006 group that won the World Cup. They left a mark and I would also like to leave a mark in the history of the national team.

Gianluigi is among the talented names that make up a very strong spine in the Italy squad

Gianluigi is among the talented names that make up a very strong spine in the Italy squad

A number of legendary Italian playmakers were invited to attend training in the build-up to the Albania clash

A number of legendary Italian playmakers were invited to attend training in the build-up to the Albania clash 

‘Albania will be difficult. At this point all the matches are difficult. But Italy will have to concentrate on ourselves. It’s an important moment for us.’

It is worth a reminder that no good ever came from betting heavily against Italy, especially in a tournament in which they they have reached the final in three of the past six editions, partially offsetting their failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2018 and 2022. 

But they have their backs against a hard wall, not helped by injuries that have kept Destiny Udogie, Nicolo Zaniolo, Francesco Acerbi and Giorgio Scalvini from participating. The gambling ban for Newcastle’s Sandro Tonali is a further complication.

Giovanni Di Lorenzo, one of just four over-30s in the squad and part of the small contingent who started that final against England, said: ‘We are down to seven or eight players but the soul of this group is the same as three years ago. In this group there are great footballers but also great men. This is what the two groups have in common.’

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