Will tonight be about a Schillaci or a Houghton?
TOJ: How is the relationship between the Azzuri and the public?
AF: Up until the Euros started there hasn't been a huge interest in this version of the national team (under Conte). This is generally the norm in Italy. For qualifiers and friendlies there is always a lack of interest. However, once it comes to a major tournament the public generally gets behind the team. Even if there is a sense of pessimism about the teams chances, the blue shirt of Italy always ignites a passion and interest amongst fans. It is a chance for club and regional rivalries to be put aside and as Andrea Pirlo put it in his autobiography "be part of a team that belongs to everyone". This appears to be stronger than ever under Conte's tournament-mode Italy. 19 million people tuned into the Belgium game back home. Compare that with less than 13 million for Italy's first games at Brazil 2014 and the Euros in 2012 respectively. This demonstrates that the public appears to be as passionate as ever when it comes to the Azzurri. It may be the political and economic situation that is driving people to some form of escapism and as is the case with many nations football tends to be the number one subect matter that satisfies that need.
TOJ: After such a good start to Euro 2016, are expectations high in Italy for the rest of the tournament?
AF: It is very easy to get carried away with an impressive result in the first game. Expectations are definitely a lot higher than they were before the Belgium game. It has being pointed out that Italy always do well when there are low expectations e.g their World Cup triumphs in '82 and '06 but when you look at those sides there was so much quality in midfield and attack; Bruno Conti, Marco Tardelli, Paolo Rossi, Andrea Pirlo, Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, the list goes on. Deep down I think most people know that outside of the Juve defence the quality really isn't there to go all the way but stranger things have happened. The day after the Belgium win the Gazzetta dello Sport headline read "Dream, Italy Dream!". This captures the mood of the nation perfectly.
TOJ: Antonio Conte is one of the highest paid managers in Europe, a large part funded by sponsors Puma (incidentally three times more than Irish manager Martin O'Neill), and much more than many of his predecessors. Has this put added pressure on him?
AF: As coach of the national team in Italy there is always pressure. Come tournament time there are 60 million coaches in Italy that are all experts on the national side and the press are notoriously critical if the team underperforms . I don't feel the finances have put any extra pressure on Conte. He puts all the pressure on himself. He is a born winner and doesn't expect anything less than 100% from himself , his players and all of his staff. He is walking into a job in Chelsea that is one of the most high pressure roles in world football so I don't think he feels pressure from the outside sources.
TOJ: With a suggested 9 changes being made to the Italian starting XI, who will the key Italian players be in Lille?
AF: Following Tuesday's press conference it appears that Conte has had a change of mind with regard to the number of changes. After observing training this week he felt he would like to retain more balance in the side and as a result it appears that he may not as make as many changes as first anticipated. ( 7 as opposed to 9)
Bonucci is now set to start and he will be Italy's key defender. His ability on the ball as demonstrated in the assist for Giaccherini is something that will be key to Italy's play.
In midfield Bernardeschi is favourite to start ahead of El Shaarawy as right wing back. Both are very talented players and have the ability to beat players in one on one situations. Florenzi is another player set to get his chance from the start. Another technically good player who scored an amazing goal for Roma against Barcelona this season.
Up front Zaza and Immobile will be keen to impress. Zaza is the type of player that could explode onto the scene ala Schillachi in 1990. Conte seems to be a fan and if he impresses enough he may push for a starting spot in future games.
TOJ: Italy put on such an abrassive and pro-active performance against Belgium but quite a conservative one against the Swedes, how are the Italian XI likely to line out from a tactical and strategy point of view against Ireland?
AF: Italy have form in not performing well in the second game in tournaments so the subdued performance against Sweden was not a surprise. Conte is expected to stick to his trusted 3-5-2 formation. As mentioned above he is looking to retain the balance of the side and the changes in personnel will essentially be chances for second string players to stake a claim for the first XI v Spain or demonstrate that they are capable of stepping in should injuries arise. Sirigu is set to start in goal with a back 3 of Barzagli, Bonucci and Ogbonna. The midfield 5 could be Bernardeschi, Sturaro, Thiago Motta, Florenzi and Di Sciglio. Zaza and Immobile will start up front.
TOJ: Italy are traditionally renowned for getting exactly the result they need in key games. Given they have already secured 1st place in the group do you expect Italy to perform in a relaxed manner or one defined by the motivation and freshness of the 9 replacement players eager to make an impact?
AF: The game versus Ireland will be a very strange one from an Italy perspective. They are rarely in a situation where they have qualified for the next round after two games. Traditionally the Azzurri don't perform in games that don't really matter. Especially so in friendlies. They are unbeaten under Conte in competitive games so I'm sure they will want to continue this record. Each of the players that come in to the side will be eager to impress Conte but I feel he has his fixed first XI for the games that matter and is unlikely to change this unless there are injuries or the player really impresses v Ireland. If there is any space for some players to sneak into the first XI for the knockout round it would be in midfiield or up front so pay extra attention to how players such as Bernardeschi, Florenzi Zaza and Immobile perform.
TOJ: Despite this, with so many changes to the starting XI, is there a chance that the team will lack coherency, given it is not an XI that has played together before?
AF: If you asked me this yesterday I would have said there was a much bigger chance. Now that Conte appears set to start Bonucci I think this will ensure Italy are more solid at the back compared with if they had started Darmian. In midfield there is defintely more opportunity for there to be a lack of coherence as the likes of Sturaro, Thiago Motta and Florenzi would not have had much game time together. The same goes for the attacking duo of Zaza and Immobile but to Conte's point he has always argued that the 23 players he has are "one" so his idea is that whoever steps in to a position should do so without manyproblems.
TOJ: Italy’s squad is littered with midfielders and defensive players at top clubs, however offensively, less so. Is there a lack of quality for Conte to chose from in attack?
AF: Absolutely. Historically Italy have always had top class attackers. In fact, at times they have had too many. Previous coaches would have had to decide between Mazzola and Rivera, Baggio and Zola, Totti and Del Piero, the list goes on. The strikers at Conte's disposal at the moment are Pelle (substitute at Southampton), Eder (1 goal since joining Inter in January), Immobile (hasn't been the same player since joining Dortmund) and Zaza (substitute for Juve). These players do have certain qualities but are nowhere near the level that Italy has been used to.
There are other options like Insigne, Bernardeschi and El Sharawwy who are talented players in their own right but have yet to prove it on an international stage and from Conte's perspective are more impact players.
TOJ: Does this Italian team have weaknesses? And if so what do you think they are?
AF: As you have alluded to above the weaknesses would be the lack of quality in certain midfield positions and up front. If Italy were to go 1-0 down against any good side I feel they would struggle to get back into the game. They are built on the Juve defence and if that fails them I feel they lack the creativity to break down a team that sits back.
Talking specifically about the Ireland game there are definitely weaknesses that can be exploited. Ogbonna is coming into the back three and although he has benefited from the physicality of the Premier League playing for West Ham, he is a downgrade on Chiellini.
In midfield Thiago Motta is the weakest link in this Italian squad in my opinion. He is an experienced player but is very cumbersome and limited in his ability so is definitely a player Ireland should try and exploit by putting pressure on him from the outset.
TOJ: Marco Tardelli recently stated that in his experience Irish players don't appreciate the tactical side of the game. How do you feel this Irish team is perceived in Italy?
AF: Italians always recognize Ireland as team that can cause problems. This goes back to USA '94 and the Italian press has pointed out the Roy Keane was involved back then so have identified him as a key person in the Irish set up for this game. They also recognize Robbie Keane as someone who a potential danger man from the bench as he has scored against them previously in Bari in 2009.
Conte is well aware of the fact that Ireland can get results against teams of perceived higher quality with the recent games against Germany and Bosnia perfect examples. Italy played Scotland in a friendly in the lead up to the tournament specifically in preperation for this game.
Hoolahan is recognised as the creative player in the team with Shane Long's pace and power also being pointed out. Conte is meticulous in his preperation and this Ireland team will not be taken lightly.
TOJ: Finally, how do you see the Italy v Ireland game ending up and how do you see the tournament going for the Azzuri?
AF: It really is a difficult game to predict. As mentioned before Italy are never in this situation. I feel that even with so many players being rotated by Conte he has formed such a tight knit group that they will prove difficult to beat. There are weaknesses in the Italy side that Ireland can exploit but they will need a big improvement in performance and the likes of Hoolahan and Shane Long to shine. Long will need a lot more support than he had against Belgium especially considering he is playing against a back 3. It would not surprise me if this game finished as a score draw. Ireland will cause Italy problems but Conte's fighting mentality in the team will ensure Italy do not get beaten.
As regards Italy's progress in the tournament I think it will all come down to the game against Spain on Monday. If they can beat the Iberians and bury the ghosts of the 2012 final anything will be possible for Conte's side. They would then more than likely face the Germans who have never manged to beat the Azzurri in a competitive game. So for me it will either be a last 16 exit or a Semi Final defeat.
TOJ: Great stuff Angelo, lets hope its '94 rather than '90 that is revisted tonight!
Calcio blogger and expert on all things Azzurri, ex Guardian and Back Page Football contributor, follow Angelo at @afiorini78 to keep abreast of the Italian team's progress throughout the tournament.
Fantastic illustration provided by @howayaprints, available to purchase at www.howaya.ie