Will Spain struggle to break Italy down as Azzurri seek Euro 2012 redemption?
Holly Thackeray | June 22, 2016
Can Italy stay staunch against Spanish style?
Euro 2016 supporters have been spoiled with headline clashes in the group stage already, as the likes of Belgium v Italy, England v Wales and Germany v Poland have already enthralled fans in the opening few games.
Now, in only the last 16, the European Championship will already treat viewers to a tussle between titans Spain and the Azzurri, in a repeat of the Euro 2012 final, when La Roja ran out as dominant 4-0 winners in a true showing of Spanish stylistic supremacy.
Vicente del Bosque’s boys were at the peak of their powers at the point, however. And, as Antonio Conte’s disciplined Italians disciples seek retribution, will the field in France see a different outcome for Italy this time? Coral’s tempting odds of 8/1 for the Azzurri to reach the last two again are certainly enticing.
Spain have shown they can come unstuck
Their terrorising of Turkey aside, Spain have not been completely convincing in the competition so far, following on from their shocking pool stage exit in the 2014 World Cup.
La Roja have been revived recently of course but, at their first major tournament since the Brazil blooper, there have been evident cracks and the defence of this crown looks to present serious obstacles.
Before the tournament began, Coral experts questioned both the quality of squad players left behind and a lack of options with cutting edge up top.
Although it is easy to stick the boot in this early on, especially after a surprising last-gasp capitulation to Croatia, the Spanish have already had failings exposed.
Nine times out of 10 the exceptional possession football displayed against Turkey would be enough to make light work of any team. Yet, against stubborn Czech Republic it took 87 minutes before Barcelona centre back Gerard Pique broke their resistance.
Wave after wave of aesthetic Spain attacks had no answer, and this cost Del Bosque more clearly in the Blazers attle, who seized their chance to claim pool top spot and put La Roja in a trickier last 16 tie against Italy, who proved just and confident Group E victors.
Morata to be marked out of match?
Croatia had players just as easily able to manipulate the ball, in Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric, as Spain plus direct attackers in Nikola Kalinic and Ivan Perisic just as able to stretch and split defences.
Italy may have omitted Andrea Pirlo from the France finals squad, but Conte’s selections so far have shown no signs of surrendering a single blade of midfield territory, while Spain are also without their legendary conductor from the last finals in Xavi Hernandez, making it all even in that regard.
The likes of Cesc Fabregas and David Silva are undoubtedly incredible talents, but just a shade less intelligent and incisive than Xavi, though this is no slight.
A central midfield bank of three in Azzurri colours, including Daniele De Rossi, Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini will seek to interrupt Spain’s passing patterns, and then behind those bodies will be another defensive wall of three.
So, in short, don’t expect to see a repeat of the Turkish 20-plus passes whitewashing, as La Roja have a tough task to breach this masterfully led Leonadro Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini backline.
That’s not to say Spain can’t enjoy success, especially with much talked about marksman Alvaro Morata jointly leading Euro scoring charts with Gareth Bale. Yet, despite a penchant for poaching in big games, there have been many question marks over the striker’s supposed lack of killer instinct.
Will the young blood of Morata, now returned to Real Madrid from Juventus after his buyback clause was exercised, find himself bullied and outnumbered by banks of astute Italians not afraid to put an elbow in? This will be a true test of his mettle.
A player renowned for smart movement and drifting into channels, Spain could find their fluidity checked by Morata’s penchant for wandering when he meets Chiellini and co. While both he and remaining forward partners Silva and Nolito should also encounter staunch resistance from Italy’s wing backs, who always have one eye on pressing forward.
Is Spanish formula for success outdated?
It is to be noted that in their Euro 2012 final triumph Spain rallied against predictions by winning without a clear or traditional frontman, aside from bringing on Fernando Torres at 75 minutes into the thrashing.
So, Del Bosque may not be too concerned whether his frontman goes missing or not, as La Roja possess dangers all over the pitch. While, their defensive roster is arguably equally as talented as Italy’s, especially between the posts, and will be crucial in playing out from the back to break their opposite numbers down.
Though times have moved on since 2012, and the Azzurri have very few in their fist XI who remain bar back three trio Andrea Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini plus anchorman De Rossi.
Coach Conte is no Cesare Prandelli, meaning punters are unlikely to see players shoehorned into unfavoured positions, or a lack of width.
Spain also no longer hold the monopoly on team chemistry, though their link-up play remains as admirably psychic as ever. Instead, the Azzurri have been playing as an impressive unit, making Belgium look impotent when on the backfoot and breaking ruthlessly as a team at the other end to devastating effect.
La Roja, in all their ambitions for footballing purity, will endeavor to go forward much more than Sweden did, though Conte still managed to break the Scandinavians down eventually. So, there will be more gaps for opportunistic Graziano Pelle, Eder Citadin Martins and Antonio Candreva to exploit.
As Croatia exemplified, you need more than rearguard resistance to oust La Roja, and though Spain are still favourable at 9/2 to lift the European Championship for a third successive time, it’s hard to envisage another one-way traffic tussle here.
If there is to be one team that can ruin Del Bosque’s road to retirement, it could be Italy. With the components in place to attack and defend as a team, deny the midfield space and restrict the hardly bilstering wide players with their ageing but savvy defence, plus proven poachers ready to hit on the counter, don’t count Conte and his crew out just yet.
With two of their three tournament strikes so far arriving after 85 minutes, the Azzurri are nothing if not patient and will be aiming to wait out their possession gobbling opponents.