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Italy's title defense ends with a whimper, and a host of excuses, at Euro 2024

COLOGNE, Germany — As Italy head coach Luciano Spalletti spluttered and ranted and criticized and generally talked himself into a muddle, you had to wonder, has there ever been a worse defense of a European Championship than this one?

The answer, stunningly, is yes. Past victors of the Euros have historically struggled, with one standout exception, and in that sense, Italy's tame and uninspired exit in the Round of 16 shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it turned out to be.

But has there ever been one that came about in more dejected circumstances, with Spalletti's team showing not a scrap of fight in a 2-0 loss to Switzerland, and then the coach explaining away what happened with a litany of excuses — none of which carried much merit?

Perhaps not.

Maybe we all expected too much from the Azzurri, but it was hard not to after that splendid capture of the trophy three years ago, culminating in winning a penalty shootout against England at Wembley Stadium in the final.

If this wasn't the most talented team in its long history, at least we could bank on the relentless will to win, couldn't we? At least amid Spalletti's unconventional methods and sometimes crude rants, they were going to be a tough out? They weren't.

And to add insult to it all, there was this.

"I have the responsibility for what has happened," Spalletti told reporters, before going right ahead and blaming pretty much anything and everything else.

"I need to get to know my team a bit better," he added. "We also had a number of players who suffered injuries, players I was counting on, and you saw that in terms of intensity we were under par. Inter won Serie A, and they are a serious, professional club. But perhaps unconsciously, you're not as applied