Italy got their news on who they will be facing in the group stage in the European Championships next summer -- and the news is not good. Saturday's draw was not at all kind to Italy, pairing them with Belgium, Sweden, and the Republic of Ireland.
This is probably the closest thing to a so-called "group of death" as there is in this tournament. Belgium are the top-ranked team in FIFA right now after blitzing their Euro 2016 qualification group and dazzling in friendlies. They fell short of expectations in the World Cup two summers ago, but their squad's incredible young pool of talent has matured nicely and they look like a tournament favorite now.
Sweden have Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a slowly improving side set up behind him -- though the team as a whole can be somewhat mercurial. When they're playing well, they can beat anyone -- but frequently either the defense or midfield will break down, leaving them exposed to exploitation of their opposition. Sweden aren't unbeatable by any means, which is why they were in the third pot and had to go to the third-place playoff to get to the final tournament. They are, however , a team with Zlatan in it, and that's never good news to face off against.
The Republic of Ireland are the low card of the group, but they're far from an easy win. They performed excellently in a difficult qualification group, giving both Germany and Poland all they could handle and then some. Their hard press-and-counter style is one that tends to play well in a short-format tournament like the Euros, and their slowly improving quality of play presents a challenge for Italy. They don't give their opponents one key man to disrupt to keep them at play, instead spreading things around and always keeping an avenue open. That's tough to defend against, and gives them a solid chance to advance.
All three offer matchup problems for Italy, and frankly it's nigh-impossible to predict how this group will pan out. Belgium are the clear favorites, but any of Italy, Sweden, or Ireland could finish second or third. Given the close-run nature of this group, don't be surprised if the third-placed team in Group E is not one of the four top third-placed finishers who advance to the knockout rounds.
Euro 2016 is going to be a tough run for Italy. Don't be surprised if Gli Azzurri and their fans don't have as much fun in France as they're hoping to.