MILAN (AP) -- The mood in Italy was despondent after the Azzurri crashed out of the World Cup in Brazil last year, leading to the resignation of coach Cesare Prandelli and the president of the Italian football federation.
Antonio Conte took over and steered Italy to top spot in its qualifying group for the 2016 European Championship, booking a spot in the tournament with a game to spare.
But question marks still remain over whether Conte has improved Italy.
In Conte's 16 matches in charge, Italy has won nine and drawn five, losing just twice -- both friendly matches. However, the performances have been less than impressive with slender, uninspiring wins against much smaller teams in Azerbaijan, Albania, Bulgaria and Malta and drab displays elsewhere.
Still, there are signs that Conte is finally managing to get his team playing the way he wants and everything appeared to come together in the 3-1 win over Azerbaijan which booked Italy's ticket to France.
There is a strong mix of younger talent coming into the squad and, together with the old guard, they can indeed "go to France to cause some bother" as Conte said.
"In the difficult moments, everyone loves to criticize the work of the players and the coach," Italy and Juventus defender Leonardo Bonnuci said. "We have always known that we would do well with Conte and we were proved right.
"We achieved qualification a round early and that is a great result for a side that was reborn from the ashes of a disastrous World Cup in Brazil. Now we all need to work together to achieve one objective, as this squad has a lot of quality."
Here are Italy's three top players and coach, Conte.
Gianluigi Buffon has won almost every prize there is in football, both with club and country.
He has been a rock between the posts for Italy since becoming the first-choice goalkeeper during qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, going on to play in three straight European Championships (helping Italy reach the final in 2012) and four consecutive World Cups.
Buffon was a crucial part of Italy's World Cup winning team in 2006, where he was also named the tournament's best goalkeeper.
The Juventus and Italy captain, who turns 38 in January, recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of his Serie A debut.
Buffon has played for Juventus since signing from Parma in 2001, showing remarkable loyalty to stick with the club when it was relegated to the second division in 2006 for match-fixing.
He has made 154 appearances for Italy since his debut in 1997, making him Italy's all-time appearances leader. He is second behind Alessandro Del Piero for Juventus.
But despite all that, Buffon -- who is also the only goalkeeper to ever be awarded the UEFA Footballer of the Year award in 2003 -- denies he's a legend.
"No, no, legends seem to have something that isn't very human and I don't like them," he said recently. "I am an athlete with soul, with heart, for the good and for the bad, that's for others to judge.
"I consider myself a footballer who marked a part of the history of the sport in Italy, in Europe and in the world. But you turn into a legend when you die. I hope that's in the very distant future!"
In the space of a year, Southampton striker Graziano Pelle has gone from an afterthought in Italy to the Azzurri's starting center forward.
At 1.94 meters (6-foot 4-inches), he's the perfect complement to his strike partner, the more diminutive Eder.
Pelle made his first appearance for Italy little more than a year ago at the age of 29, and has already scored four goals in 10 appearances.
It's been a long road to recognition at home, though, with Pelle having established himself with Dutch sides AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord before landing at English Premier club Southampton last year.
He scored 50 goals over two seasons at Feyenoord but was ignored by previous Italy coach Cesare Prandelli. It wasn't until Pelle proved that he could score in England, too, that he caught the eye of current Azzurri coach Antonio Conte.
"I had the fortune of taking a roundabout road but who knows how my career would have gone if my name were Pellinho," Pelle said recently.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal, who coached Pelle at AZ, once compared the forward to Netherlands great Robin van Persie.
In October, Pelle's winner against Norway earned Italy first place in its qualifying group.
As a child, Pelle was an award-winning dancer.
STEPHAN EL SHAARAWY
With Mario Balotelli's status uncertain, 23-year-old Stephan El Shaarawy could be the one player representing the evolving Italy as the son of an Egyptian father and an Italian mother.
Having made his Serie A debut with AC Milan as an 18-year-old, El Shaarawy finished the first half of the 2012-13 season as the top scorer in the Italian league with 14 goals. Ever since, he's struggled with form and injuries.
Having transferred to Monaco before this season, El Shaarawy is attempting to revive his career in the French league and has received constant support from Italy coach Antonio Conte, who uses him as an attacking winger.
All roads lead to France for El Shaarawy.
"I scored my first goal with the national team against France. The Euros are in France, which I want to be a factor in. And to earn my spot, I've got to play well in the French league," El Shaarawy said in a recent interview with Italian daily La Repubblica.
It was El Shaarawy's decisive goal in a 3-1 win over Azerbaijan in October that qualified Italy for Euro 2016 -- ending his three-year scoring drought with the national team.
As a Muslim, El Shaarawy takes "pride" in his Egyptian name.
"I feel a great kinship with my origins, even though I only learned a few words of Arabic," he said.
COACH: ANTONIO CONTE
Conte took charge of the national team shortly after the 46-year-old's shock resignation from Juventus.
Conte had won the Serie A title with Juventus in each of his three seasons in charge, being voted best manager on each occasion. Juventus also achieved the remarkable feat of going unbeaten in the league in his first campaign.
Before that, Conte had steered Siena to promotion straight back into the top flight, following spells with Arezzo, Bari --where he won the Serie B title -- and Atalanta.
Conte as a player showed steely determination and always gave his utmost for the shirt he wore -- Lecce, Juventus and Italy -- and he demands that from his players.
"The coach has got a unique character and does not lack any determination, and this is reflected in us on the field," Pelle said. "He's a great coach. He's one who takes care of the minor details and always gives it his very best."
It has not been all plain sailing for Conte, who served a four-month ban while at Juventus for failing to report alleged match-fixing while at Siena.
He is embroiled in another match-fixing trial and faces a preliminary hearing Feb. 18 on accusations of committing sports fraud during that same period.
Italian football federation president Carlo Tavecchio and Olympic committee president Giovanni Malago have both said that Conte should keep his job, unless found guilty.
Conte's contract expires after Euro 2016 but Tavecchio is keen to renew it before then.