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Azzurri attackers El Shaarawy and Insigne offer Conte hope ahead of Euros

| 09.03.2016

Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | March 7, 2016

Italy’s Euro 2016 pool, Group E, will be no walkover. The Azzurri must do battle at the France finals with established challengers Belgium, a plucky Republic of Ireland outfit and Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Sweden, all of which scored more goals en route to the tournament.

Coral make Antonio Conte’s Azzurri 13/8 second-favourites to finish top of their group and firmly odds-on at 1/5 to qualify for the knockout phase of the France finals, but one pertinent question on many Italians’ lips is who will fire them through a competitive pool?

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A look at the Serie A goal charts tell you there is a paucity of quality homegrown attacking options, and that explains why national boss Conte roped Brazilian-born Eder Citadin Martins into changing his allegiance.

Handing out a passport to Eder and recalling 36-year-old former Middlesbrough frontman Massimo Maccarone 14 years after he last played international football apart, there are just two other Italian forwards in double figures for league goals this season after 28 games.

South America stars shining brightest

Serie A is now instead a hotbed for South American talent. Including Eder, the top five scorers are all born on that continent, led by Napoli’s Argentina hitman Gonzalo Higuain who has double anyone else’s tally.

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Compatriots Paulo Dybala (Juventus) and Mauro Icardi (Inter Milan) headline the new generation ready to push Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi, not to mention marginalise 30-somethings Ezequiel Lavezzi and Carlos Tevez.

Even AC Milan, perhaps the biggest bastion of Italian football for Italians, has a very international flavour nowadays – typified by leading marksman Carlos Bacca of Colombia.

Azzurri players are very much in the South Americans’ shade, but it is not all despair for Conte. Yes, there have been high-profile flops – Mario Balotelli springs to mind immediately – but there are also shoots of encouragement offered by a couple of wide attackers.

El Shaarawy back on song

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Stephan El Shaarawy found no room for himself on Milan’s roster under Sinisa Mihajlovic and was duly loaned to Monaco. That spell turned out to be a disaster with the mega-rich Principality outfit unable to keep pace with Ligue 1 leaders and champions elect PSG, who have dominated French football in recent years.

Returning from Monaco without even scoring a league goal, the Rossoneri instead lined up a stint with Serie A rivals Roma, and it would be a major understatement to say El Shaarawy has hit the ground running in the Eternal City.

In just six league outings for the Giallorossi, El Shaarawy – who is of Egyptian descent – has scored five in six, and that is surely enough to cement his place on Italy’s left flank during the Easter international break.

Insigne is a shout

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Joining El Shaarawy as a confirmed wide threat is Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne, who is in double figures for goals and assists. His supplementing of Higuain’s heroics should certainly not go unnoticed.

Although used from the left flank in Naples, it may make more sense to move Insigne infield as club coach Maurizio Sarri often has or down his natural right-hand side, with that Azzurri jersey currently occupied by Lazio’s no-less consistent Antonio Candreva.

Like Eder, Candreva grabbed a couple of goals for Italy in Euro 2016 qualifying but he appeals to Conte because of his craft and experience.

Are Genoa duo worth a gamble?

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Although Alessio Cerci’s high-profile moves to Atletico Madrid and AC Milan failed to work out, he is part of an admirable attack at Genoa headed by uncapped 27-year-old Leonardo Pavoletti.

The latter, in particular, should be worthy of consideration as he is the other Italian besides Insigne that has double figures for goals. Pavoletti wouldn’t be the first poacher to come from nowhere and end up on the Azzurri roster.

Will Conte look to a lower mid-table side like Genoa for answers to his attacking dilemma, though? Something must be done about the central striking berth because Graziano Pelle’s prime seems to have been brief.

Pelle not as prolific this term

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Southampton’s 16-goal striker of last season has struggled during his second campaign in England, perhaps because of injuries. A poor return of six Premier League strikes from the centre forward is not enough based on current form for him to credibly keep his place.

Yet former Feyenoord poacher Pelle led Italy to the Euros, top scoring with three and he is a 25/1 chance to be tournament leading marksman, so Conte could continue with him leading the attack.

Those goals from Pelle proved crucial in ensuring the Azzurri made the France finals. He accounts for nine points in qualifying, scoring winners home and away to Malta as well as against Norway.

Immobile in need of reinvigoration

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Pelle’s place in Italy’s XI seems to depend on how Ciro Immobile does back on loan with Torino, however. Like former Turin teammate Cerci, a big money move abroad to Borussia Dortmund proved disastrous for the unfortunately named Immobile.

A stint with Sevilla during the first half of this season yielded nothing either, but three in seven now returned to the Bull is evidence of a recovery.

It has to be one of Pelle, 33/1 Euro 2016 top scorer chance Immobile or Eder up front because there are real question marks over other strikers Conte could call upon.

Jury is out on others

Stefano Okaka is playing in a relatively weak Belgian top-flight, while Manolo Gabbiadini simply cannot get a game from the start at Napoli because of Higuain.

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Simone Zaza appears to be fourth-choice at Juventus behind foreign trio Dybala, Mario Mandzukic and Alvaro Morata, while the diminutive Sebastian Giovinco remains in the MLS with Toronto.

Fabio Quagliarella, unbelievably just 33, meanwhile, has been loaned to Sampdoria as part of a winter window transfer chain that saw Eder sold to Inter (yet to score since the switch) and Immobile come back to Turin.

Bookies right to price Azzurri as outsiders

Italy test themselves against tough opposition in Spain and Germany at the end of March before tackling easier assignments in their final Euro 2016 warm-ups against Scotland and Finland.

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Both spring foes are more fancied to make an impression as Euro champions La Roja and World Cup holders Die Mannschaft are two of three markets leaders for the upcoming tournament.

The Azzurri are way behind them in the outright betting as 18/1 chances, less fancied even than England and Group E rivals Belgium. Conte’s crew are even relative outsiders to make the final at 8/1 – something Italy did under the stewardship of Cesare Prandelli at Euro 2012.

Such prices simply shall not shorten until a credible striking candidate steps up to take the lead in attack, rediscovers their scoring touch or translates club form into representing the Azzurri.


For much more on Euro 2016 in the run-up to and during the tournament, take a look at Coral’s dedicated section.

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Jamie Clark

Athletics aficionado, die-hard snooker fan and Crystal Palace supporter Jamie has written for Coral since February 2014 after spells with Soccerlens and the Press Association as a digital journalist and copywriter. A former East Midlands sports correspondent and Bwin tipster, he is a graduate of both the University of York and University of Sheffield, with a Masters in web journalism from the latter.