Game of the Day: Italy vs. Spain, Paris, 18:00
No one saw this coming. Spain coming second in their group.
After losing their first game in the European Championships since 2004 to Croatia, Spain now found themselves on the sticky side of the draw, and a game against an Italian side that at first impressed but now come into this game with questions against their name.
After a tentative start against the Czech Republic, Spain waltzed past Turkey with more flair than a 70s disco in the second game of the group. Spain appeared to have mojo back. Then came Ivan Perisic and Croatia.
You shouldn’t take anything away from Croatia, the luck of the footballing Gods were well and truly on their side as Sergio Ramos missed a penalty and David de Gea made an uncharacteristic howler, Croatia’s ability on the break posed Spain’s greatest threat and ultimately their greatest undoing. This though is a Spain team in transition. For a nation that has won 3 of the last 4 major footballing tournaments on offer to European sides, long in the memory are the days of David Villa and Xavi Hernandez.
For Spain, Italy perhaps embodies their most revered opponents. Tight at the back and technically gifted, Italy are a side that can sit back and play on the counter, roll with the punches and then deliver a a swift upper cut, from the second best team in the pitch to world beaters in just a couple of minutes. This Italian side is about organisation and preparation.
Against Croatia, Spain once more dominated possession, as you’d assume any Spain side would do in the last decade. But this incarnation is a somewhat blunted tool, not quite as cutting, not quite as clinical as its predecessor in 2012.
In the midfield, they have quality in abundance but with David de Gea looking uneasy for most of the game against Croatia and for this writer at least a sense that they struggle finishing the chances they so often create, Spain, for a change, could well be there for the taking.
For Italy, it will be a much changed side than the XI that faced the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday. Antonio Conte, with a game in the bank, decided to ring the changes against the Irish. Whilst Italy finished top of the group, they will be slightly rueing what first place in Group D meant compared to the draw Belgium have managed to get for not being as good.
Against Belgium in a 3-3-2-2 formation, Italy looked immense. As the game ebbed and flowed, Conte’s Italy side rolled with it. Happy letting Belgium have possession, it was a defensive thing of beauty, and in Leonardo Bonucci, Pirlo’s heir apparent, Conte looked to have turned one of Italy’s great average sides into a side for the big occasion.
That was Day One. Since then an awful game against Sweden where the Italians won 1-0 courtesy of Eder and a defeat to the Republic of Ireland as seen this Italian side fall back into some form of mid-table obscurity. You ask for a winner of this tournament and Italy don’t jump out.
Crucial to the Italians success is the Juventus foundation. So well drilled, and individually such good defenders, the trifecta of Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini, are more than a match for Spain’s technical capabilities in the final third. Throw into the mix Gigi Buffon and Italy look sure enough at the back to not concede – the questions remains though if they can score?
Rich, The Sweeper Football Blog