Remembering Italy at Euro 2016: Heroic performances under Conte, embarrassing penalties from Zaza and Pelle

A hard-working Italy team reached the 2016 European Championship quarter-finals under Antonio Conte before they were embarrassingly eliminated by Germany on penalties.

Italy's Leonardo Bonucci at Euro 2016. [@Azzurri_En]

Although the Italy Men’s National Team went through the qualification campaign unbeaten, there was little expectation prior to the 2016 (Men’s) European Championship in France.

Coach Antonio Conte built his team around the ‘BBC’ defence of Juventus, consisting of defenders Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini as well as Gianluigi Buffon in goal. Despite lacking in flair, the Italians were a hard-working squad that lined up in Conte’s preferred 3-5-2 formation and managed to beat teams like Belgium and Spain on the way to the quarter-finals.

Unfortunately, Italy lost to old foes Germany for the first time in a major tournament, albeit on penalties. In one of the most bizarre penalty shootouts in history, Simone Zaza and Graziano Pelle produced two of the most embarrassing penalty misses ever witnessed.

Italy progress out of Group E with victories over Belgium and Sweden

Euro 2016 commenced in Lyon for the Italians and they faced the highly-fancied Belgium in their opening game. Despite the Belgians possessing a golden generation of players including AS Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan, Napoli forward Dries Mertens, and future Inter and Giallorossi forward Romelu Lukaku, they failed to break down a resolute Italian defence.

Leonardo Bonucci produced a superb long pass for Emanuele Giaccherini to open the scoring after 32 minutes before Pelle sealed the win in injury time with an excellent volley at the back post.

Italy struggled to break down Sweden in game two, but it took a piece of magic from Eder to secure the win and progress to the Round of 16. A throw-in reached the head of Zaza, who nodded the ball into the path of the Brazilian-born striker. He then beat three defenders before firing into the bottom right corner.

Conte was able to put out a weakened squad against the Republic of Ireland, and the Irish were able to repeat their 1994 (Men’s) World Cup heroics by defeating the Azzurri 1-0 thanks to a goal from Robbie Brady – no relation to former Juventus, Sampdoria, Inter, and Ascoli midfielder Liam.

Italy topped Group E with six points and finished above Belgium thanks to a superior head-to-head record. The Azzurri would face Spain in the Round of 16.

Italy’s Ciro Immobile at Euro 2016. [Azzurri_En]

The mighty Azzurri end the European dominance of La Furia Roja

There were still a sufficient number of players who featured for Italy when they were humiliated 4-0 by Spain in the Euro 2012 Final, and it was evident that they wanted revenge.

One of them was Giorgio Chiellini, and he was the unlikely goalscorer of the first Italian goal after 33 minutes. Eder had taken a low free-kick, which was spilt by Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea. Giaccherini tried to get the rebound, and although he was impeded by De Gea, Chiellini was able to fire the loose ball into the net.

The Azzurri had chances to kill off the contest earlier, but they had to wait until the end of the match, when Matteo Darmian’s low cross was deflected into the path of Pelle, and the striker finished emphatically from close range. Spain had won the last two European Championships and the 2010 (Men’s) World Cup, but Italy were able to dethrone them.

Gallant Italy fall against Germany with an ignominious exit

Waiting in the quarter-finals were Germany, who defeated Italy 4-1 in a friendly earlier in the year. However, the Azzurri had demonstrated their supremacy over Die Mannschaft in major tournaments and had defeated the Germans in the semi-finals four years earlier.

It was Germany who took the lead after 65 minutes when a low, deflected cross came from the left, and Mesut Ozil made a late run into the box to put the ball into the net. The lead did not last long after Jerome Boateng committed a handball and conceded a penalty. With 12 minutes remaining in regulation time, Leonardo Bonucci stepped up and dispatched the penalty despite Manuel Neuer guessing the right way.

Neither side was able to score a winner in extra time, so the match went to penalties. Lorenzo Insigne and Toni Kroos converted their spot kicks for their respective sides before Zaza stepped up for the second Italian kick. He produced a stuttering run that looked ridiculous, blasting his kick high and wide. His attempt became infamously known as ‘The Zaza Dance’.

Thomas Muller and Ozil failed to convert their kicks for Germany whereas Andrea Barzagli scored for Italy. Pelle stepped up for the Italians and arrogantly signalled to Neuer that he was going to chip his penalty kick, but he tamely hit his low and wide, before Julian Draxler scored for the Germans.

Despite scoring during the game, Bonucci saw his saved in the shootout by Neuer, but his blushes were saved when Bastian Schweinsteiger blasted his penalty over the bar. Both sides scored their next three penalties before Darmian had a penalty saved, and Jonas Hector won it for the Germans.

Conte resigned and joined English Premier League club Chelsea after the tournament. His replacement, Gian Piero Ventura, would eventually be responsible for Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1958.

It was because of that fiasco, that Euro 2016 also proved to be the legendary Buffon’s final tournament for the Azzurri as he retired from international football before Euro 2020.