Spalletti keeps courage of convictions with Italy for Croatia challenge

<span>Luciano Spalletti has deflected questions about whether <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Italy;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Italy</a> can win the competition.</span><span>Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Live News</span>

Luciano Spalletti wanted his Italy team to make memories against Spain. “We all have our stories we like to share,” he said pre-game. “The players will see when they get to my age; they will need tales of their own to tell. This is a game that could give them one.”

Those players came away with a horror story. Spain obliterated the defending champions, a 1-0 scoreline greatly understating their superiority. Perhaps one day Giovanni Di Lorenzo will get some mileage from recounting the time he was run ragged by a young Nico Williams, and Riccardo Calafiori might laugh about the own goal he scored in his fourth Italy appearance. Right now, their focus will be on changing their fortunes at this tournament.

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It would have been easy for Spalletti to spin Italy’s involvement at Euro 2024 as an underdog yarn. He has held his role for less than a year, inheriting a squad with a handful of holdovers from the group that triumphed in this competition three years ago, and which failed to qualify for World Cups either side. But shying away from pressure is not really his style.

“Uomini forti, destini forti,” goes Spalletti’s mantra – “strong men, strong destinies”. Those words were even painted on to his car, a previously unassuming Fiat Panda, by a popular graffiti artist after he steered Napoli to their first Serie A title in 33 years.

The full version also includes the parallel proposition: that weak men have weak destinies and “there is no other path”. In practice, the phrase boils down to a belief that success will be found only by owning your responsibilities and having the courage of your convictions.

Leading up to this tournament, Spalletti spoke of wearing the status of defending champion proudly, saying his players must know they are “heroes and giants” to 60 million people back home. He has deflected questions about whether Italy can win the whole thing, because that is beside the point. In Spalletti’s vision, they should aspire to play good football first and trust it will take them where they want to go.

He returned to that theme on the eve of the game against Spain, saying it would be a “huge mistake” for Italy to be deferential and assume these opponents were superior. Spalletti’s ambition for Italy to play a possession-focused game and maybe even “dominate proceedings every now and then” would come to look painfully naive.

They managed four shots, none of which seriously troubled Unai Simón. Italy’s keeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma, made eight saves and twice was rescued by the woodwork. It was a cruel twist that his partial interception of a Williams cross should lead to the decisive own goal, pushing the ball on to Calafiori, from whom it rebounded into the net. They had been two of the few Italy players to come through the opening 55 minutes with some credit.

Post-game, Spalletti alternated between defiance and distraction, scribbling on a pad at times while he spoke. “I still would like to make people understand the importance of trying to dictate play,” he said. “If you just try to get in the way of a team like that, in the long run it becomes very difficult.”

He presented Italy’s struggles as a matter of conditioning. “Maybe I should have given them more recovery time [after Italy’s opening game against Albania],” he said, before countering himself with the rejoinder that those choices were informed by GPS monitoring data.

In the words of the midfielder Bryan Cristante, “there is no time now to have a cry about it”. Italy will play their decisive final game in Group B against Croatia on Monday. The Azzurri are second for now, and a draw would guarantee their progress to the knockout stage. But Croatia, semi-finalists at the World Cup, will throw everything they have at chasing a win after collecting one point from their first two games.

A defeat would not necessarily eliminate Italy but would leave them depending on results elsewhere. There is a scenario in which they could drop to the bottom of Group B if Albania defeat Spain, who are likely to rest players with top spot secured.

Spalletti is expected to make changes. His frustration with individual performances was laid plain on the “Spalletti-cam” deployed by the broadcaster Sky Sport Italia against Spain, which showed him chastising Jorginho for not coming to the ball. The Arsenal player was substituted at half-time and may lose his place.

It is unclear who would replace him. Cristante, who came on for Jorginho against Spain and was immediately booked for a reckless challenge, offers a more robust defensive presence but less control. The Juventus midfielder Nicolò Fagioli played well in pre-tournament friendlies, but is he ready to start such an important game after missing most of last season serving a gambling suspension?


Genoa’s Mateo Retegui appears likely to get his chance up front after Gianluca Scamacca again failed to reproduce his Atalanta form for the national team. Lazio’s Mattia Zaccagni may also be considered for a role after delivering some of the energy Spalletti was seeking off the bench against Spain.

Whoever starts, the approach is unlikely to change. Croatia are another team who prize possession, even holding a greater share of the ball than Spain when they met in the opening round – something no team had done in a competitive fixture for 16 years. Yet a midfield of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic is likely to dissuade Spalletti from his belief that Italy should aspire to dictate the play.

“If you are a team that just runs, that does not play the ball, that just gives the ball to the opponent, that’s not a kind of football I like,” he said. “That’s a difficult style for me to teach, because I don’t know how to do it. I’m the least suitable person for that.”