LYON, France (Reuters) - Plagued by injuries to his creative midfielders and without a talisman up front, Italy coach Antonio Conte is banking on a workmanlike team full of energy to outfox Belgium’s exciting young forwards when they meet on Monday.
The Euro 2016 Group E match comes ahead of tough encounters against Ireland and Sweden giving neither side much respite should they lose the first game in Lyon.
Once famed for their “catenaccio”, a tactical system with an emphasis on a strong defensive unit, Italy come to the tournament with arguably their weakest team for years and conceding goals particularly against top teams.
They face a Belgium side with a talented squad tipped by some to go one better than the golden generation that finished as tournament runners up in 1980.
Despite opening the scoring, the Italians were beaten comfortably 3-1 by Belgium in a November friendly.
Conte, who joins Chelsea after the tournament, is known for his motivational skills, team unity and tactical flexibility, although a tendency to tinker has led to mixed results since 2014.
“You need to sacrifice yourself for the team,” Conte recently said in an interview. “The team isn’t a single person.”
His best midfielders Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio are both ruled out through injury.
Without the magic of Andrea Pirlo, pulling strings in the heart of midfield, old heads Thiago Motta and Daniele de Rossi alongside Marco Parolo will try to stop the supply lines to creative Belgium attackers Eden Hazard, Yannick Carrasco and Kevin de Bruyne.
Conte is hoping winger Alessandro Florenzi flourishes after an encouraging season with club AS Roma and inspirational veteran goalkeeper and captain Gianluigi Buffon will also need to galvanize his troops.
Yet the lack of a killer instinct among Italy’s strikers, notably target man Graziano Pelle, could make it difficult should Belgium score first and force the Italians to chase the game.
In contrast, the Red Devils appear spoilt for choice in attack having scored an average of more than two goals per game over their last 10 matches.
After a terrible season at club level for Chelsea, Hazard has hit form. Atletico Madrid’s Carrasco has turned games on their head and could be one of the stand-out performers of the tournament.
De Bruyne is likely to be deployed in the playmaker role while any one of Belgium’s four central strikers Michy Batshauyi, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi, could be chosen to lead the line.
Coach Marc Wilmots, however, has not had things all his own way in the build-up after losing defensive rock Vincent Kompany and fellow center back Nicolas Lombaerts.
He looks set to play Tottenham pair Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in the heart of defense, but a lack of cohesion was exposed in their three warm-up games.
Tightening up that defense may well be key to whether Belgium can overcome a well-drilled Italian team.
Editing by Toby Davis