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Although Andrea Barzagli barely received mention for his impeccable performance in Italy’s monumental 2-0 triumph against Spain.

There could be no denying how integral the Juventus defender was in the stirring triumph.

Extraordinary Andrea Barzagli the unsung hero of Italy's remarkable Euro campaignOn a historic night at the Stade de France, where the Azzurri took down La Roja for the first time in a competitive game for 22 years, the defensive master’s sterling job alongside club teammates, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, underlined his tremendous importance to Antonio Conte’s well drilled side.

When speaking ahead of the game, Barzagli made it clear under no uncertain terms of his desire to make life as difficult as possible for the Spanish. Barzagli also stated his intentions to former Juventus teammate, Alvaro Morata, that he’d be getting no preferential treatment whatsoever. “There are no friends on the pitch – I struggle even to say hello to them before kick-off, as it’s an issue of concentration. Morata is one of many dangers in the Spain side, they have a lot of quality and we must be wary of everyone,” he insisted. “We’ll fight the way we usually do – we might be ugly, do the dirty work, but we will give everything to hurt Spain.”

And hurt Spain he did from his right sided central defensive post, in a match where he exuded calmness, confidence, aggression and the utmost intelligence. Charged with blanketing the menacing Nolito, the 35-year-old relentlessly heaped pressure on the Celta Vigo star, making sure he never enjoyed an easy touch. He stuck to him like glue, with his diligence, exemplary positioning and decision making ensuring Nolito couldn’t impose himself on the contest. A testament to Barzagli’s fantastic job came by way of Nolito’s substitution at half time.

With Vicente del Bosque tinkering with his setup at the break, the second half saw Barzagli line up against none other than Morata. And Barzagli fittingly carried on his dogged yet wildly effective work, as Morata too fell victim to the defensive maestro, who had all the answers for whatever the Real Madrid man threw at him.

He was a real colossus, winning duels both, on the ground, and in the air. Just like Nolito before him, Morata’s 70th minute substitution unquestionably had a lot to do with Barzagli’s brilliance. Both men ultimately just couldn’t overcome his superior judgement, ability to read the play and his hulking physicality.

The support networks installed by Italy’s tactical mastermind, Conte, also played a major part in Barzagli being able to perform his role to perfection. Having been given instructions to stick to his man tightly, this meant Barzagli often had to follow his markers when they drifted up field in search of possession. As a result, he’d inherently leave unoccupied space behind him. Due to Conte’s incredible work on the training ground, this was never a worry, for one of Bonucci, Alessandro Florenzi or Marco Parolo would slide across and provide cover. This selfless, sacrificial, defend as a team mentality that Conte has so successfully ingrained into his team has so far been a key cornerstone of their unbelievable run at the Euros.

In addition, every time Spain pushed into the attacking third, they were confronted with a sea of blue, as Italy astutely dropped their wing backs deep to form a back five, thus clogging up the spaces in and around the box that the Spanish midfielders traditionally love to exploit.

Barzagli’s performance once again highlighted how beneficial having club teammates Bonucci, Chiellini and keeper Gianluigi Buffon is to this side. Having such a sublime understanding of each other’s tendencies is such a huge advantage at international level. They may not be as talented in midfield and attack as many other teams in France, but their defence is by far the best in the tournament and forms a wonderful foundation for the Azurri. “It’s definitely an advantage to be able to rely on four players from Juventus who have played together for a long time in defence, and of course we are building something solid on this basis,” Conte told UEFA.com.

The fact Conte has got everyone pulling in the one direction and undertaking their assigned responsibilities so effectively means they defend as one cohesive unit, and don’t rely solely on their gifted back line. “What’s certain is that the defensive operation includes the forwards as well,” explained Bonucci. “Our work is made easier by the fact our forwards, just as Conte wants, are our first defenders.”

Indeed, when factoring in the tactical acuity and powers of motivation Conte has given them, they are certainly a team who are bigger than the sum of their parts. System is key for Conte, not individuals, and that philosophy has been exactly what’s given Italy the platform for success.

Barzagli, a player who’s completely familiar with his manager’s methods from their time working together at Juve, is unsurprisingly shining. Conte’s decision to pick him to start every one of Italy’s matches aptly depicts the enormous faith he has in the veteran.

With Germany up next, a team that are yet to beat Italy in a World Cup or European Championship game in eight attempts, expect the 35-year-old and his club colleagues at the back to be a pivotal factor in deciding the outcome.

Barzagli may not be the most glamorous name on Italy’s teams he et, but he’s definitely the unsung hero of this supremely well organised Azzurri outfit.

Originally published at licencetoroam.net

Post written by Edward Stratmann
for Licence to Roam, Blog: licencetoroam.net, Twitter: @licencetoroam

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