Azzurri, inspired by a rock solid defense, have already cemented their place in the knockout stages of Euro 2016 with two wins from two. Second place in Group E remains up for grabs but Belgium are in pole position who sit in second.
Neither Sweden nor Republic of Ireland have performed well at Euro 2016 so far but could progress with an unlikely win on the final day of Group E.
Italy were ranked as tournament outsiders in the weeks before the Euros kicked off. Two wins from their opening games have shown that a week is a long time in football have catapulted themselves to be ranked among the favorites to win the competition.
Antonio Conte’s men exposed dark horses Belgium in their opening game. Bonucci gave a defending masterclass and emerged as an unlikely defensive playmaker when he supplied an inch perfect pass for Emmanuelle Giaccherini for the opening goal. In the closing stages Graziano Pelle added a second on the counter-attack to bring the game to a close a 2-0.
Italian press sent the Italy team a vehement warning over the threat of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in preparation for the SwedenSweden win but the formidable partnership that is emerging between Buffon, Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini snuffed out any threat. In the 89th minute Simeone Zaza stole the three points for Azzurri to net his first goal in all competitions since January.
Marc Wilmots’ Belgium were in danger of becoming one of the flops of the tournament after their tepid performance against Italy. The Red Devils’ wealth of attacking options was blunted by Italy’s defensive coordination but they lifted the pressure on themselves with an emphatic 2nd half display against Republic of Ireland.
Belgium can book their place in the knockout stage if they avoid defeat in their final group game. Italy meanwhile have top spot pretty much sealed, even if Azzurri lose their final group game they should still end Group E on top of the pile.
Romelu Lukaku scored a brace for Belgium and Axel Witsel chipped in when Republic of Ireland were embarrassed 3-0. Martin O’Neill’s men also suffered against Sweden where they were unfortunate to escape with only a point from a game they dominated. In the end however, they were undone by a Zlatan Ibrahimovic piece of skill.
The Irish managed to keep Belgium’s attack at bay for the first 45 minutes but were outclassed in the 2nd half. In the draw with Sweden it was a different story however. Wes Hoolahan put Ireland ahead but by the final whistle the team were left to rue missed opportunities from the game as Cieran Clark nodded into his own net.
Sweden have been poor at Euro 2106 so far. They were by far the lesser team against the Irish and were lucky to escape with a point. Against Italy, despite keeping them the Italian forwards at bay for the majority of the game, they barely threatened the opposition goal.
Republic of Ireland now know that only a win against Italy will see them trough to the last-16 because even if they can take a point from the game, it will not be enough to see them through in one of the best 3rd-placed spots. Sweden meanwhile are in the same boat, they need a win against Belgium in the final round of games.
Group E As It Stands
Antonio Conte fielded the same starting 11 for both wins against Sweden and Belgium. Now that their most difficult games are out the way and qualification for the last-16 has been wrapped up, Azzurri may want to rotate their team to prepare for the last-16.
Before the tournament concerns had been aired over Italy’s apparent lack of firepower in the final third, but two wins later and three goals scored, two of them by strikers, things are looking rosy for Italy.
If Conte did want to rotate his team then 32-year-old Daniele De Rossi may be swapped out for Thiago Motta. Despite the strong performance of forwards Pelle and Eder who both have a goal each so far, Immobile or Insigne could be given a chance to impress.
The defensive unit will undoubtedly remain untouched but Mattia De Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi are both available to deputize in the wing back positions, especaily since Andrea Candreva is a slight doubt with a hamstring concern.
After being written off Antonio Conte was clearly delighted at the performances of the team in reaching the next stage.
“Above all there should be great satisfaction on the part of everybody because not many people envisaged us qualifying for the last 16 after just two games,” said the coach who will be taking the reigns at Chelsea after the tournament.
“Many were even doubting us going through and the fact we’re into the last 16 after two games is really pleasing,” he said.
Adding: “Questions have been asked of many players I picked, not only Éder. All I am interested in is picking players from what I see, not who they play for or if they are nice guys, but if they can help the team. In the last two years, I’ve been lucky to have Éder who was decisive in qualifying and I hope he can be decisive here too. I picked these men and they are paying me back on the field, all 23 of them.”
Predicted Line Ups: Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, De Sciglio, Florenzi; Parolo, Motta, Giaccherini; Immobile, Insigne.
After his impressive display against Republic of Ireland Romelu Lukaku will be the first name on the team sheet for Belgium. Marc Wilmots does however have two injury concerns to be worried about.
Yannick Carrasco and Mousa Dembele were brought into the side for the 3-0 victory against the Irish but both picked up knocks in the game making them a doubt to face Sweden. Wilmots’ attacking gamble paid off in the Republic of Irealnd game and we will have to wait and see who he picks next.
Marouane Fellani and Radja Nainggolan were demoted to the bench last time out but one may be brought back to first team duties if Dembele can’t pass a late fitness test. Depending on the formation one or both could play.
If Carrasco can’t recover in time it is less of a worry with both Divok Origi and Dries Mertens waiting in the wings to replace the Atletico winger. In Belgium a debate continues to rage over the best combination of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens.
Thomas Meunier was given a start at the expense of Laurent Ciman in the last game and is set to continue at right-back. Meanwhile Vermaelen and Alderweireld should make up the center-back pairing with Vertonghen preferred at left-back.
In preparation for the crunch game with Sweden, Marc Wilmots told his players that there is one man in particular they should be watching out for.
“They have got a great player up front, Zlatan. He can score from a deflection, from a free-kick, from anything. I respect Zlatan a lot,” he said.
Adding: “We played against them two years ago at the World Cup and they were a very combative team.”
A draw against the Swedes should be enough to see Belgium through but they will undoubtedly be going for the win.
“We’re not yet qualified,” the Belgium boss said. “We have a difficult game to play against Sweden and it’s like a final. Anything could happen.”
Predicted Line Ups: Courtois; Meunier, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Witsel, Nainggolan, Fellaini, De Bruyne, Hazard; Lukaku.
Sweden’s 4-4-2 formation has yet to bring them any type of reward in Euro 2106 so far. Also, the concession of a late goal to Italy will have brought down the morale of the Swedish camp and they know that they must win against Belgium to progress to the knockouts.
Mikael Lustig picked up an injury in the Group E opener with Ireland and is unlikely to be recovered in time to play Belgium with Viktor Lindelof set to continue to deputize at full-back. It is unclear who coach Erik Hamren will select to partner Kim Kallstrom in the middle after Oscar Lewicki was dropped against Italy in place of Albin Ekdal.
John Guidetti was given an opportunity alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic last time out but it still remains to be seen if the Celta Vigo forward will be preferred to Marcus Berg in the final group game.
After the late defeat to Italy, Erik Hamren had to defend skipper Ibrahimovic who is yet to score at Euro 2016.
“Zlatan is one of the greatest forwards I have ever met,” said the Sweden boss.
“I think that Zlatan did what he needed to do in the last two matches. It was tough for him today because Italy defended very well, but we had more of the ball than we did against Ireland and of course a center-forward needs the support of wingers.”
Adding: “He’s a winner and if he’s disappointed, I think everybody can accept and understand that, we all are disappointed.”
Predicted Line Ups: Isaksson; Lindelof, Johansson, Granqvist, Olsson; Larsson, Kallstrom, Lewicki, Forsberg; Guidetti, Ibrahimovic.
Republic of Ireland
Martin O’Neill was forced to make a change before the defeat to Belgium after Jonathan Walters sustained a heel injury against Sweden. It appears that the Stoke forward will be unable to recover for the Italy match meaning the Irish will field a similar side once again.
In Walters’ absence Robbie Brady is likely to be pushed up onto the wing from full-back while Stephen Ward will fill the void left at full-back, as the Irish did versus Belgium.
In the must win game for the Ireland, efforts could be made to make the attack more effective. Waiting for a start at Euro 2016 are forwards Robbie Keane and Daryl Murphy as well ass attacking midfielders James McClean and Aiden McGeady.
O’Neill will naturally want to keep the defense tight with John O’Shea and Ciaran Clark to start at center-back and will again receive the midfield shield of the impressive trio Jeff Hendrix, Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy.
The importance of getting a win against Conte’s Italy is not lost on the Republic of Ireland boss who is eyeing nothing but a win against the four-time World Cup winners.
“We must go and try to win. That can be our only thought,” said O’Neill.
Adding: “There was a thought about possibly being able to go through unbeaten with three draws. That is gone now, and we’ve a game to win. We’ll throw absolutely everything into it to try and win. “I don’t think it will be as difficult as it’s maybe looking from here. We’re capable of breaking Italy down and we might have to only take the one chance, that might be enough.”
Predicted Line Ups: Randolph; Coleman, O’Shea, Clark, Ward; Hendrick, Whelan, MCarthy, Brady; Hoolahan, Long.