Up 2-1 and with a foot in the door of qualifying for the European Championship next summer, he knew his side could not throw away this opportunity. Indeed, a win in his team’s last two matches would be enough to qualify.
He wanted to finish the job that night however.
With an interception and powerful strike by Matteo Darmian to make it 3-1 over Azerbaijan, Antonio Conte exulted like a madman, embracing his coaching staff in a huddle. Italy were through to Euro 2016. The hard part was over.
Firstly, credit has to be given to the coach for extending the Azzurri’s unbeaten record to 50 qualifying matches, which incredibly stretches back to 2006.
But when the emotional high of qualifying fades away, one can begin to analyse the past year under the ex-Juventus boss with a clear mind.
What has worried Azzurri supporters more than anything else are the tactics, selections and decisions made by Conte during the past year and his stubbornness to implement change.
Drawn in a group that included Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, and Malta, Italy finished first with 24 points.
At first glance, the country’s results seem overwhelmingly positive. However, the manner in which the matches were won has sparked some initial cause for concern among supporters.
Even with formation changes from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 and now 4-4-2/4-2-4, dull, unimaginative play has characterised this current Italy side and watching their fixtures has become something of a chore.
Their style of play has lacked invention and excitement going forward and Italy have had to grind out results in nearly every game, yet to properly convince the Azzurri faithful.
A big issue Conte has failed to address is the glaring lack of creativity in attack for the Azzurri. Preferring substance over style, chances have been hard to come by and his side have been short of a couple of players to spark the attack while also linking midfield.
Over the past year creative player types like Lorenzo Insigne and Franco Vazquez have been shoved aside in place of more physical figures to Conte’s liking, without a clear indication why.
With his side struggling to create chances in open play, uninspiring displays have become the norm.
Ciro Immobile and Simone Zaza started in the first four of five qualifiers but now Graziano Pelle and Eder seem to have won the coach over, with Antonio Candreva and Stephan El Shaarawy also finding regular minutes under the 46-year-old.
Having found pairings to his liking, Conte has been stubborn to change, and has not done enough to shuffle a stale attack that is lacking invention and unpredictability.
While narrowly getting by teams of lower calibre may have been alright in the qualifying phase, the question begs what will happen come Euro 2016 when Italy face sides that will allow just a couple of chances per game such as Spain, Germany or host nation France?
Although Conte has cited the small pool of Italians available for national team selection, he has failed to call upon the country’s best players and properly integrate new attacking talent in his starting XI.
Regarding player selection, supporters have been frustrated and puzzled by the lack of consistency in Conte’s word. While the 46-year-old has claimed playing time remains the most important factor when making decisions, he has called up various players that are not recording regular minutes for their clubs and or aren’t in great form to begin with.
Additionally, various talented players that have found less minutes at their clubs won’t make Conte’s squad, using his ruling to justify their absence.
The result? It has become clear the 46-year-old seems to bend his rule for some players but not others. He’s made it clear who his favourites are while also preferring players who will be run into the ground to make up for their lower levels of skill.
In Conte’s recent call-ups for friendlies against Belgium and Romania, many in-form players have been surprisingly excluded while the 46-year-old also missed the opportunity to try out emerging talents. These include Riccardo Saponara, Jorginho, Daniele Baselli, Davide Zappacosta, and Vazquez.
These next two matches serve the primary purpose of assessing different players but unfortunately out-of-form figures in Candreva, Mattia De Sciglio, Alessio Cerci, and Simone Zaza have been called up instead.
Azzurri fans can only hope Conte can construct a starting XI over the next few months with improved attacking play and hungry new faces.
Fortunately, we’re many months away from the final deadline. All we can do is wait and see.
About the author – Matthew Amalfitano
Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, the Independent, Betfair, beIN Sports USA, Squawka and others.