Italy coach Antonio Conte believes his team can thrive as the underdogs when they face Spain in the first knockout round at Euro 2016 on Monday.
The Azzurri’s reward for finishing top of Group E is a meeting with the reigning champions in a repeat of the Euro 2012 final, when Spain outclassed the Italians 4-0 in Kiev.
Given that Conte’s side were written off in some quarters before the tournament began, just reaching the knockout phase could be considered a success in itself.
But the coach said his players could take inspiration from their performance in beating much-fancied Belgium 2-0 in their opening game at the tournament last week when they head to the Stade de France.
“The players are doing everything they have to. They are working very hard and we have to keep grafting. We must not have any anxiety,” said Conte after a much-changed Italian side, with top spot in their group already assured, lost 1-0 to the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday.
“The first aim was to get into the last 16. Now we have a match against one of the favourites but let’s not forget where we started from.
“We mustn’t get above our station. A last-16 match against Spain should excite us and we need to play like we did against Belgium, against a side who are supposedly superior.”
Italy’s wins against the Belgians and Sweden allowed Conte to rotate his squad against Ireland in Lille, where he made eight changes to his starting line-up.
But winning the group has done little to help Italy, who find themselves on the wrong side of what now has the look of an extremely uneven draw.
If the Azzurri do manage to beat Spain – who also knocked them out on penalties in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals – their reward could be a quarter-final against world champions Germany. Hosts France or England could come in the semi-finals.
“There is a crazy imbalance in the draw for the second round, but those are the rules and we have to respect them,” Conte said.
Paris Saint-Germain’s Brazil-born midfielder Thiago Motta was one of those who came into the Italy side at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
Motta, 33, is likely to drop out of the team again come Monday to make way for Roma’s Daniele De Rossi for a match he says Italy can win. “We know that Italy are not as good a side as Spain or Germany but we know we can win by playing to our strengths,” said Motta, who appeared as a substitute in the 2012 final.
“Nobody believed in us before the tournament and then after two matches we were already through.”
Italy had looked set for a tie against Croatia before Ante Cacic’s team claimed a surprise 2-1 victory over Spain to leave the reigning champions second in Group D and on a collision course with the Azzurri.
Motta added: “Once the match starts there will be no favourites. They will try to control possession but Croatia showed that there are weaknesses in their side and we have the weapons to cause Spain problems.”