Antonio Conte will watch Sunday's final on television with a glass of red from near the Italian city of Genoa
It was in the last European Championship, in 2016, that Antonio Conte kicked and screamed his way into English hearts ahead of taking over at Chelsea.
Conte and his Italian team were one of the stories of the tournament. His animated displays on the touchline were almost as captivating as his team’s performances on the pitch, as they reached the quarter-finals and only lost to Germany on penalties.
Five years on and Conte cuts a more relaxed figure, as he contemplates the prospect of a pre-match meal and a glass of red wine before settling down to watch Sunday’s final on television from near the Italian city of Genoa.
One of the all-time great managers, Conte is taking time off after leaving Inter Milan, but the 51-year-old agreed to interrupt his break to talk exclusively to Telegraph Sport through the Italian team who will attempt to break English hearts at Wembley.
Other than his run to the quarter-finals as manager, Conte finished as a runner-up with Italy at the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000 as a player. He has won the Serie A title four times as a coach, three times with Juventus, for whom he also won five titles as a player, and last season in charge of Inter Milan. Nobody is better qualified to talk Italian football.
And no Italian knows the challenge facing Roberto Mancini’s record-breaking squad better than Conte, who won the Premier League title and the FA Cup during two whirlwind years at Chelsea.
Conte still hopes to return to the Premier League one day but, while he describes England as “my second national team”, on Sunday his heart will belong to Italy and some of the players whose careers he has influenced.
Top of the list of Conte’s disciples are 36-year-old Giorgio Chiellini and 34-year-old Leonardo Bonucci, who played under him at Juventus and for Italy, and who Conte believes are still the best partnership in Europe.
Antonio Conte believes that Leonardo Bonucci (C) and Giorgio Chiellini (R) might be the difference between the sides
“Bonucci and Chiellini are two fantastic centre-backs,” Conte says. “In this moment and in these Euros, they are the best defenders. Chiellini knows very well that his career is going to end in a few years and for this reason, now, he’s always focused and he knows this could be the last important chance in his career to win with the national team. Also, for Leo, for Bonucci, I think together they are the strongest defenders in the Euros.
“Remember, they have played in this game before. Bonucci and Chiellini played in the final of the 2012 Euros, Spain against Italy, and they have the right experience to face this type of game, the right personality. If you remember after Italy conceded the goal against Spain in the semi-final, there is an image where Chiellini speaks with his team-mates and says, ‘OK, now keep calm and continue to play.’ I think maybe at the moment, England don’t have these types of players with this type of experience. “For a manager, these types of players bring your mentality and your thoughts on to the pitch. For sure, two of the most important players.”
The third player Conte rates as being crucial for Italy is Gianluigi Donnarumma, who has been the best goalkeeper at the tournament and will play for Paris St-Germain next season. “Donnarumma, I think in this moment and in the future will be one of the best goalkeepers in the world because he is a complete player,” Conte says. “He’s good with his feet, he has the personality to go out and to take the ball and to help the defenders. He is a fantastic goalkeeper.”
Italy have always been famous for their defence, but a feature of this team has been how well they keep possession and how hard they press from the front. Much of the team’s energy comes from midfielder Nicolo Barella, who excelled under Conte at Inter and once claimed he would “get myself killed” for his former coach. “Barella is a player that only two years ago, he was playing with Cagliari, with a medium team,” Conte says. “In the last two years, he improved a lot at Inter Milan. He has great energy and he can run as much as most players can in two games.
“He has room for improvement, but for this Italy he’s very important because he gives a greater energy. If you compare Barella to Marco Verratti and Jorginho, they are good to play with the ball but don’t have Barella’s energy. I think this midfield are complete between them.”
Jorginho has been one of the players of the tournament, having won the Champions League at Chelsea, where he initially struggled under Conte’s successor Maurizio Sarri.
“I think for Jorginho, it’s been very, very important to play in a league like England,” Conte says. “Because to play in this competition in England, it’s important to play with intensity, to improve your passing and to be very, very fast in your thoughts. But at the same time, you have to improve physically.
“In England, Jorginho improved a lot and he is now a stronger player, if you compare him to the player at Napoli. He has always been a player who likes to play football and to be the playmaker, but physically he has improved a lot. This is great for him and for the national team.”
Conte (L) believes Gareth Southgate (R) is doing a fantastic job
Italy may lack a striker in the mould of Romelu Lukaku, whom Conte transformed into one of the best in the world at Inter, or Harry Kane, but Conte believes they have forwards who England will have to “pay great attention to” – particularly one man who may feel he has a point to prove.
“Ciro Immobile has been criticised by the media in Italy, but I think, at this moment, he’s good for the team because he puts pressure on the central defenders,” Conte says. “He has a good engine to run and he’s ready to attack the space, especially if the defensive line is high. He’s scored many goals for Lazio and I think England has to pay great attention because also Immobile is angry because the media have tried to attack him. I think it was the same for Kane at the start of this tournament. At the start, Kane was under fire because he didn’t didn’t score for three games. But Immobile for Italy, he is important.”
Federico Chiesa has perhaps been Italy’s breakout star and Conte sees similarities between the 23-year-old and England’s player of the tournament Raheem Sterling, who he believes will be the biggest danger to Italy. “Chiesa is good in one-v-one, he has good quality with his left and with his right, and he’s good technically and also he’s strong physically,” Conte says. “He’s a really good player and Chiesa, for sure in England, could play for an important team. He’s good physically, too.
“Chiesa is the player, at every moment he can invent something positive for the team, he’s a bit like Sterling, two fantastic players with great quality and the capacity to go and beat their opponent.”
Italy are unbeaten in a record 33 games since September 2018 and Conte believes Mancini’s side are able to adapt to any problem they are presented with.
“When you reach this level, 33 games unbeaten, it means the team is really good and has the right balance,” Conte says. “For this Italy, the best thing is they have the right balance offensively and defensively.
“They can accept every type of situation – if the opponent is good in possession, Italy are good to defend and go on the counter-attack. When there is the possibility, they try to play and build and to have possession and build from the back. This is a really dangerous team for every national team.”
Conte knows the pressure of being the national team manager and he could not suppress his laughter on the other end of the line as he considered how everybody in Italy and England would have an opinion on the selections Mancini and Gareth Southgate make for the final.
“To be the manager of the national team is one of the most difficult jobs in the world, because you are alone and you have the whole country who can speak and make the best decision – but only after the game has finished,” Conte says. “You must make the decision beforehand.
“I think Gareth is doing a fantastic job because he’s involving the whole squad and you can see that every player is happy, whether they start or they’re on the bench. It’s the same with Roberto. They have to make the best decision and they can’t let anybody influence it. And you know that the decision is only good for everybody if you win!”