Written by Damien Kayat for @Hollywoodbets.
Spain vs Italy | Thursday 27 June | Estadio Castelao | 21:00
This game is tinged with the acrid pangs of revenge, with Spain looking to atone for their shock semi-final exit in South Africa in the 2009 edition of the competition, while Italy are looking for the necessary amelioration of the destruction that they received in the final of the Euros last year. The last seven years or so have marked a dramatic shift in the balance of power in European football, with the 2006 World Champions Italy eclipsed by the Herculean exploits of a Spaniard team designed for world domination. I suppose the current balance of power represents a victory for the purists, a valorisation that football need not abandon aesthetics at the expense of pragmatism. Spain play a highly disciplined, rigorous system that happens to embrace both beauty and brawn. Suffice to say, Italy will have their work cut out if they aim to add more silverware to their illustrious trophy cabinet.
To Win (90mins)
Vicente Del Bosque must sleep all right at night. Knowing that he could probably enter two teams into a major tournament, and both could conceivably end up in the final is a luxury few managers could ever have felt. Spain have looked a class apart when they need to find that extra gear, even seeming to expand their game with the introduction of occasional route one style long balls. In Iniesta and Xavi they have a fulcrum through which to harness their amazingly intricate passing game. Alba has been excellent at left-back, while Arbeloa plays the more stoic role in the heart of the defence. Ramos has looked in control at the back, while Albiol has deputised for Pique ably. David Villa is starting to cut a somewhat forlorn figure up front, perhaps recognising that his time as a stone cold certainty has come to an end, with Torres looking more effective when given the opportunity.
Truly, their greatest weakness may be their embarrassment of riches, and just trying to find exactly the blend to extract the most out of the side. They have opted for a nationalist agenda for the big games, favouring Madrid and Barca players, and who could really deny them that right? The likes of Silva and Mata, who would casually stroll into any other team in the world, are reduced to trying to live off the vicarious scraps that they receive when they can. I really felt like fatigue could be a factor for this team but they have defied any doubts I had with true World Champion skill. In Italy they really have the perfect team to monopolise possession and play their game; an ageing team heavily reliant on the strength and mobility of a striker who will be missing the game due to injury.
Missing Mario Balotelli truly is a crippling blow. He was the ‘X’ factor that could have elevated Italy. Iniesta is a superior player to Balotelli, that much is clear, but with Iniesta and Xavi you understand the quality that they bring to the team, and they are part of the footballing philosophy of that club. Balotelli has the enigmatic quality that is needed when you play superior teams. He also allowed Italy to play in a certain way that could have caused Spain discomfort, utilising his brute strength and speed to keep defenders honest. Without him, the troops look a little thin on the ground, and it is likely Giaccherini or Diamanti will support Giovinco up front. That isn’t even the end of it for Italy. Abate is being flown back for suspected shoulder damage while Montolivo could be an unlikely starter following a head injury.
Poor Andrea Pirlo. He sat out the last match due to a calf strain and he knows that if his team stands even the most obscure chance of victory his vision is compulsory in the side. The one piece of refreshing news for the Azzurri is that Daniele De Rossi will be back following his suspension served, which should give some more stability in the middle of the park. The most disappointing aspect from Italy’s perspective thus far in the tournament has been uncharacteristic openness that they have displayed in their games, partly a manifestation of fatigue but I believe it also reflects a growing distrust in the rigidity of the defence and unfortunately the goalkeeper. I feel that Buffon has been the best keeper in the world for the past ten years but time seems to be catching up to him, with his defence hardly doing him favours after shipping eight goals in three games. He just seems to be shouldering all of the defensive responsibilities in his gloves and I feel he is going to be in for another long night.
VERDICT: Spain 7/20
Spain are going to inflict more misery on an Italian team who need to make vital changes around the park. Prandelli has extracted all the possible chi out of the likes of Buffon and Chiellini at international level. One too many trips to the fountain could damage the chance of younger players being embedded in the culture of what still is a highly successful and capable Italian outfit. Expect Iniesta to give a performance where he commands the game, with those vertiginous accelerations and turns mesmerizing the Italian defence whose former glory is starting to be tarnished by approaching years.
The man knows his football, but even he gets it wrong from time to time. Feel free to share your view below.
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