Euro 2012: Spain 1 Italy 1
Traditionally one of those fixtures that leaves the football connoisseur salivating, Spain v Italy did not disappoint in this opening Group C encounter in Gdansk, Poland.
Spain’s ‘tika-taka’ approach for which they and indeed Barcelona are famed and gushed over by all and sundry flattered to deceive here, and I say that with deliberate bluntness. Their cause was not helped by Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque’s decision not to pick a striker or any semblance of one, unbelievable some might say (me), with the prolific Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo to pick from, in addition to the £50m Fernando Torres of course. Italy, on the other hand, produced a tactically inspiring display, highlighted by a man of the match performance by Roma’s Daniele De Rossi who Italy boss Cesare Prandelli surprisingly picked as a sweeper in a throwback 3-5-2 formation.
The first meaningful chance came from the evergreen Andrea Pirlo in the 13th minute, as the Juventus midfielder’s low free kick forced Iker Casillas to dive to his right to prevent a shock Italian lead. It was cat and mouse for large parts thereafter as Italy’s pressing and general industry countered Spain’s methodical approach play. Antonio Cassano’s marauding run down the right resulted in a tame shot across goal. At the other end, Iniesta hit a half volley straight at Gigi Buffon.
An uncharacteristic error from Casillas in the 32nd minute brought the game to life as he failed to control a back pass from Sergio Ramos – fortunately for the Real Madrid goalkeeper a freekick was given for a foul on him by Antonio Cassano. Minutes later he was at fault again as the energetic Cassano cut inside with a shot that the Spanish captain could only spill into the path of Mario Balotelli, who failed to control the ball and subsequently conceded a freekick for a foul on Gerard Pique.
Italy were playing with confidence at odds with their previous outings where they had lost their last three friendlies, including a 3-0 reverse to Russia a week ago and it was Claudio Marchiso this time to try his luck in the 36th minute with a spectacular 25 yard volley which Casillas comfortably parried before collecting at the second attempt. Despite sporadic attacks by Spain, the best moment of which resulted in a wayward shot by Iniesta, it was Italy who continued to create the best chances. On the stroke of half time a superb Cassano cross was met by Thiago Motto eight yards out, whose point blank header produced a fine save from Casillas. Iniesta drew the half to a close, latching onto a Xavi through ball to scoop over from six yards out with goalkeeper and defender in close attendance.
Antonio Di Natale fires Italy ahead
The second half began as it ended, Italy pressing, denying their opponents space and Spain probing, dictating the tempo with their relentless short passing game. Italy in fact had much of the initial possession. The half’s first chance arrived through Fabregas, whose drilled 20 yard effort forced Buffon into palming his effort away for a corner.
Moments later Xavi had an effort that flew wide. The game was beginning to warm up nicely where the previous half had left it as Iniesta squandered another Spanish chance in the 51st minute, his effort tipped wide by Buffon as he ran beyond the Italy defence and shot from an acute angle.
Two minutes later Balotelli squandered the best chance of the game thus far as he brilliantly dispossessed the Spanish right back Sergio Ramos on the near touchline 25 yards out. The Manchester City striker bore down on goal with seemingly all the time in the world to pick his spot only for Ramos to race back and execute a perfectly timed tackle to deny Mad Mario – as we Italians like to call him – a shooting chance.
It was a glorious chance for Italy to take the lead and it would be Balotelli’s last meaningful contribution to the match as he was replaced soon after by the prolific Udinese striker, Antonio Di Natale. Minutes later the break through finally arrived and it was the substitute who provided it in the 60th minute. Pirlo seized possession in midfield and after skipping forward, slipped a fantastic through ball for Di Natale in the left hand channel to latch onto and expertly steer into Casillas’ bottom left hand corner. 1-0 Azzurri!
There are some will have watched this game and sumarized it as dour and predictable, with not much to reminisce about but not I, as Spain’s almost immediate equaliser proved in the 64th minute. Francesc (yes, I call him Francesc because that’s his actual name, I’m anal like that) Fabregas latched onto a delightful David Silva reverse pass to smash beyond Buffon. 1-1.
It was the Spanish at their brilliant best as their top heavy midfield combined majestically. Cue a flurry of substitutions soon after as both sides looked to freshen things up in the Gdansk humidity. Sevilla winger Jesus Navas replaced David Silva and the 5ft, 5 inch Sebastian Giovinco, who was unlucky not to start the match, did likewise for Cassano. Chances were becoming more frequent for Spain as the reigning World and European Champions began to move through the gears, highlighted by Jordi Alaba’s volley from a Navas cross in the 73rd minute that he screwed wide of Buffon’s left hand post.
Del Bosque replaced Fabregas with Torres in the 74th minute and it almost paid dived ends seconds later, Torres was played in by Navas and he beat the Italian offside trap but quelle surprise such is his form at club level, let Buffon, who had rushed out, tackle him and clear the ball to safety like a seasoned centre half, no hands needed. Italy produced a moment of their own prolificacy minutes later as Giovinco picked out an unmarked Di Natale who awkwardly volleyed his cross wide.
It was Torres again 5 minutes from time who wasted another opportunity. He was played in by Xavi and with the onrushing Buffon to beat, attempted a lob from the edge of the 18 yard box that sailed harmlessly over when a pass to a team seemed the better option. The game was not done quite yet, Marchisio shot straight at Casillas in the 88th after a swift counter attack that had begun deep in Spain’s half and Xabi Alonso let fly in stoppage time that flew well wide. Enthralling stuff.
On this evidence Italy will go far as they so often do in tournament football, Spain, who left the field berating the playing surface, need to find Plan B because tika-taka, as Barcelona proved last season, has its flaws and they are becoming more apparent to Spain’s opponents by the game.
Spain (4-2-1-3): Casillas; Arbeloa, Ramos, Pique, Alba; Alonso, Busquets; Xavi; Silva (Jesus Navas 65), Fabregas (Torres 74) , Iniesta.
Subs Not Used: Valdes, Albiol, Javi Martinez, Juanfran, Pedro, Negredo, Mata, Llorente, Santi Cazorla, Reina.
Italy (3-5-2): Buffon; Bonucci, De Rossi, Chiellini; Maggio, Thiago Motta (Nocerino 89), Pirlo, Marchisio, Giaccherini; Cassano (Giovinco 65), Balotelli (Di Natale 56).
Subs Not Used: Sirigu, Ogbonna Obienza, Balzaretti, Abate, Barzagli, Borini, Montolivo, Diamanti, De Sanctis.
Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary).