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.

twitter: _MattFootball


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Ten games into the Ligue 1 campaign, AS Monaco are firmly ensconced in mid-table with 14 points from a possible 30.

Les Monegasques finished third in Le Championnat on the final day of last season, earning a UEFA Champions League playoff berth, but Leonardo Jardim’s men currently find themselves seven points behind Angers SCO and SM Caen and a similar feat looks unlikely for the moment.

Following last Friday’s 1-1 home draw with last season’s runners-up Olympique Lyonnais, the principality outfit are still searching for their first home win in Ligue 1 this term.

Monaco, it appears, are struggling to cope with the heavy number of changes made to the squad over the summer.

This is not completely new. Last season, ASM were in a similar mid-table position until they embarked upon a strong run of form in early December that carried them across all competitions until EA Guingamp ended it in February of this year.

Last summer, like this, Monaco made significant changes to their playing staff. However, despite losing recognisable figures like James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao, Jardim had a strong core to work with when he arrived at Stade Louis II.

This time around, Les Monegasques moved on six established members of the group and a seventh first team regular from the past few seasons in Lucas Ocampos.

Anthony Martial, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Aymen Abdennour, Layvin Kurzawa, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Dimitar Berbatov all filed out of the exit door, along with a number of others, for just over €150 million.

No fewer than 14 players were acquired to replace those departed. Among those, Ivan Cavaleiro, Adama Traore, Rony Lopes, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar and Stephan El Shaarawy all came in for around €80 million. Approximately half of what the club earned.

Taking into account the high volume of transfer activity in and out of the principality outfit this summer, Jardim is doing well to keep Monaco in a similar position to the one they were in last season.

They still have a chance to push towards the upper reaches of Ligue 1 like they did over the second half of the last campaign.

The Portuguese tactician has been frustrated by the high turnover of his squad and bemoaned the lack of experience available to him after ASM recorded just their second win of the season, a 1-0 victory away at top flight newcomers Gazelec Ajaccio, last month.

“We are happy to win but all these young players are going to be the death of me,” said the 41-year-old after a Fabinho penalty had sealed the points for his team. “Our youngsters in midfield and attack missed a lot of chances.”

“Our objective is to play good football but it’s not easy,” Jardim continued. “These young players have come from small clubs, where they are not used to playing with pressure to finish towards the top of the table. But our job is to work with them and help them progress.”

Since it became obvious to Monaco president Dmitry Rybolovlev that UEFA’s financial fair play (FFP) was going to prove too difficult an obstacle to navigate, the Cote d’Azur club have changed direction completely.

Through a combination of a limited local fanbase that struggles to fill an already small stadium and their failure to find wealthy sponsors, Les Monegasques realised they could not bring in enough commercial revenue to sustain such a lavish project.

Because of that reality exacerbating the nuisance of FFP, ASM had to restructure their project and make some drastic moves. At first, it looked as if the club was a failed venture, but now there seems to be a plan in place.

Monaco have moved away from high-profile, big money signings, like Ligue 1 rivals Paris Saint-Germain, moving instead towards low cost, high potential acquisitions like the ones mentioned by Jardim after the Gazelec win.

In essence, Monaco have become Le Championnat’s answer to Portuguese transfer masters FC Porto. That policy, much to Jardim’s frustration, is not likely to change anytime soon either.

That business model, often relying heavily on cheap, well-scouted South American talent with enormous potential is something that Portuguese sides like Porto, SL Benfica and Sporting Clube de Portugal arguably copied from Lyon in the early 2000’s.

However, the Portuguese giants perfected it, leaving OL to concentrate largely on French domestic talent. Porto proved the best of the bunch at it and they have since turned it into an art form.

After selling Danilo to Real Madrid, Jackson Martinez to Atletico, Alex Sandro to Juventus and a number of other players this year, Porto have now made close to an estimated €700 million in transfers since 2004.

Dragoes have also learned how to balance that constant turnover with spells of domestic dominance.

There is a long way to go before Monaco equal Porto’s massive transfer revenue, but the seven-time French champions have clearly identified that model and are actively trying to replicate it. The domestic success part, with a juggernaut like PSG already on the scene, will be harder to emulate.

Adding to the Portuguese flavour in Monaco’s Porto-esque project is the fact that Portuguese transfer guru Luis Campos is overseeing it, as well as coach Jardim.

Gone are the days of Falcao, Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho joining the club in attention grabbing, big money moves.

Buy low, sell high, something said that is often associated with Porto, is now starting to be said of Monaco too. No player is unsellable at Stade Louis II; perhaps best demonstrated by Kurzawa’s PSG move, something Vasilyev chalked up to the player’s desire to move to the capital.

“We wanted to keep the player,” the Russian told RMC Radio after Monaco’s Champions League exit at the hands of Valencia. “We talked to him a few times, but he had decided — he really wanted to go to Paris.”

“It’s his choice. We wanted to keep him — but if a player wants to leave and a club makes us a very good offer, we do it. I can confirm that it’s for a very significant amount.”

Otherwise, why would Monaco sell to a Ligue 1 rival and arguably the only side (perhaps with exception of Lyon) who can beat them to the title?

Following ASM’s Champions League playoff defeat over two legs to Spanish side Valencia CF back in August, vice-president Vadim Vasilyev claimed that his club did not need to sell their most valuable and coveted stars.

Yet, less than one week later, Kurzawa had joined PSG, Abdennour had been snared by Valencia and Martial had departed for Manchester United.

Those transfers alone garnered Monaco almost €100 million, with Martial the cherry on a well-layered cake considering how his fee could grow significantly in the future.

There is still more talent to cash in on too. Les Monegasques have the likes of Falcao to shift permanently, while Fabinho and Bernardo Silva could be the next to go for big money.

Considering the latter pair’s ability, it should bring the club some of the most significant fees seen so far in the project’s short lifespan. There is also Portugal international Moutinho, who should still attract a fairly sizeable amount, despite Monaco’s keenness to get rid of him.

Spending their hard-earned money more frugally than before does not mean Les Monegasques cannot excite people with their dealings still. For example, El Shaarawy’s acquisition still captured the imagination of many.

Such an existence will keep the principality outfit competitive in Ligue 1, continually qualifying for the Champions League, or at least the UEFA Europa League.

With PSG set to continue their dominance of Le Championnat for the foreseeable future, that is a good niche for ASM to carve out for themselves, especially for when Les Parisiens’ Qatari owners decide to call it a day at Parc des Princes.

Assuming that Monaco continue along their current road, they will be well positioned when that day in the capital finally comes.

About the author – Jonathan Johnson

Ligue 1 and French football journalist. Covering PSG in English. Work is published regularly on @EPSNFC, @br_uk, @YahooSportUK and @beINSPORTUSA.

twitter: @Jon_LeGossip


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