Moment of truth for revamped Italy as Euros title defence begins

Italy players leave the pitch after a training session.[AFP]

Italy kick off their European Championship title defence against Albania on Saturday as a new-look team tries to rebuild the reputation of one of the world's most important football nations.

Luciano Spalletti's Italy take on Albania in Dortmund in the first of three clashes in a fiendishly difficult Group B which also contains Spain and Croatia.

And those two later fixtures make Saturday's hugely important, as with the four best third-place finishers in the six groups reaching the knockout stages, a win over Albania would give Italy a great chance of going through.

Italy come into the tournament in quietly confident mood, with delegation chief Gianluigi Buffon insisting that the Azzurri are "an underrated team" despite being holders and four-time World Cup winners.

Buffon was one of the stars of the show when Italy won the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when a golden generation of players including Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Andrea Pirlo and Fabio Cannavaro took their country to one of its greatest ever football triumphs.

Since then the national team has been going through something of an identity crisis, unsure of its position in the global game and no longer feared as in decades past.

Italy might be reigning champions but after winning the last Euros three years ago they missed out on qualification for a second straight World Cup.

And qualification for this summer's Euros, which begins on Friday, was complicated by Spalletti's predecessor Roberto Mancini jumping ship to Saudi Arabia in August last year.

'Future greats'

Spalletti has been entrusted to guide his nation out of another bout of deep soul searching and he has done so by casting aside the team which became national heroes by beating England at Wembley in the Euro 2020 final.

"I can see that we have players in the squad who will become future greats. They have the quality," Federico Chiesa said on Thursday in an interview with UEFA.

"We want to show what we're made of at the Euros. Let's see what we can do."

Juventus forward Chiesa is one of the few graduates of the victory in 2021 still assured of a starting place, alongside Nicolo Barella, assuming he recovers in time from a thigh injury.

Spalletti is also sweating on the fitness of Barella's Inter Milan teammate Davide Frattesi, who scored Italy's only goal in Sunday's encouraging warm-up win over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Albania meanwhile are taking part in just their second Euros and the Eagles will be swept along by the enthusiasm of their supporters.

Armand Duka, the head of Albania's football federation, claimed in an interview with Sky that "more than half" of the Westfalenstadion will be taken up by his countrymen.

And with 10 of Sylvinho's squad playing in Italy, there will be plenty of familiar faces for the Azzurri to deal with.

"Italy will be a special match. In Dortmund we will play probably the most important match of our lives," said Duka.

"We'd be delighted to get out of the group, but we'll be happy in any case just to have taken part in the Euros."

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