With an hour to go before kick-off, much was being made of Vicente Del Bosque’s decision to adopt the 4-6-0 formation that had only previously been chosen by Scotland in recent international football. However, with David Villa missing the European Championships, Fernando Torres facing the snub from the starting XI after another media-inhibited season and Fernando Llorente striking an unorthodox leading man for the tiki-taka football of the free-flowing Spain side, it was quite possibly a better method of conquering the problem of having no obvious candidate to fit the role of striker in their current formation than Portugal’s was last night. Especially considering Cesc Fabregas had often been deployed in the centre forward role this season with Barcelona, often accompanied by relative success and the attacking-mindedness of the Spanish midfield.
The formation was having relative spells of success early on, with the saturation of Spanish players adopting areas of the field at any one time forcing the Italians to come forward and into play. Most specifically, in front of their back four, where De Rossi was having to step up and out of his unnatural position of centre-back to deal with the likes of Xavi and Silva threatening to thread through Fabregas and Iniesta at any time. In the opening stage of the game it nearly proved beneficial for the Spaniards, as De Rossi made the move out of defence and as he did so allowed space in behind him, which was dutifully exploited by Spain, which led to their most clear cut chances so far and De Rossi committing a foul that was dealt with when play ceased. Contrastingly, for all the possession Spain were having throughout the first half, many of Italy’s early chances were left to set piece plays – none of which prospered or looked like possessing any promise.
Surprisingly, in the first half hour Sergio Busquets had stayed on his feet and Mario Balotelli had stayed out of trouble, and the game entirely, it seemed. Yet it was unlikely that both would stay the same and come 33 minutes the latter had folded, grabbing the first fistful of attention for a flurry of punches at the ground having not made the most of his first opportunity of the game. With rage ensuing within, Mad Mario had been booked three minutes later and had lost his head for the rest of the game, potentially.
Before half-time could bring a rather dull affair to a close, a few moments of excitement managed to surface with Marchisio unleashing a speculative volleyed effort from outside of the box, Fabregas nearly drawing first blood in the 42nd minute and Iniesta trying his best to two minutes later. With all of their chances falling to these two men and the fact that the majority of international goals are coming from crosses as of late, Llorente may have fancied a second half stint from the bench. Firstly, though, Iker Casillas had to be called into action after awhile in the wilderness, with Balotelli creating the space for Motta to shadow in at the near-post and force a snapshot save out of the Real Madrid ‘keeper.
It continued to be the Barcelona trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Cesc that looked most dangerous to the Italian backline; yet, for the majority of the time at least, Spain were limited to shots outside of the box and Buffon was quick to react to a rasping shot from the boot of Fabregas shortly after the break, before denying teammate Iniesta. Patience was serving Italy well so far and with another stifled attack from the Spaniards, Ramos found himself facing his own goal near the sideline with Balotelli on his shoulder. Ramos dealt with it poorly and the Manchester City striker charged down his clearance, controlled the loose ball and was left to head towards goal in a one-on-one scenario. Fortunately for Spain, Ramos recovered well, but even more fortunate was the opportunity Balotelli provided him with to do so, gifting him the time to get back. Cassano looked on despairingly on the edge of the box as Ramos tackled and Cesare Prandelli took note, hauling Balotelli off for 34-year old Di Natale.
Approaching the 60 minute mark, Spain were enjoying much of the possession, with the Italians completing just 58.5% of the amount of passes Spain had racked up at 403. However, a failure to make their control on the game count saw Di Natale profit: moments after coming on the seasoned Udinese striker had coolly put his team a goal to the good. Latching on to an Andrea Pirlo through ball, the diminutive hustling striker shaped himself from close range and finished across goal, sending the Italians into a one-goal lead.
Now all Italy had to do was park the bus. So far they had done well to limit Spain to the odd shot from outside of the box. Very little was breaking the centre-back pairing of Chiellini and De Rossi. Then, with a quick twist at the hips, a reworking of the feet and a majestic first time left-footed outside of the boot flick through, Silva had set up Fabregas to fire home on his left foot, past the flailing Buffon. A chance quickly followed for Spain to build on their equaliser, but Xavi’s lofted cutback cross fell to left-back Jordi Alba, who, with the best will in the world, was never likely to hit the target and volleyed wide.
With parity restored with the scores level, Del Bosque brought on Fernando Torres for goal scorer Cesc Fabregas and an immediate chance fell to the striker who had just over a month earlier scored at Camp Nou against many of his teammates. Breaking the offside trap, the forward beared down on the Italian 18-yard box and as he shifted right, Buffon did too and luckily scuffled the ball away from the feet of the Spaniard, hoofing it into touch. Di Natale then nearly reinforced his claim as the tactical masterstroke of the game, finding himself free space in the box, but the striker could only guide his shot wide.
The last ten minutes was the Torres show: seemingly the media bandwagon of ill-wishing had written the script. Everything positive Spain created had Torres at the heart of it. An otherwise audacious effort to lob Buffon that would’ve been praised for bravery had it been another striker, was criticised for not being the Torres of old; a clever run into the box and cut back with his left foot was underemphasised in terms of creativity, with the commentators instead focusing on the after shot of the Chelsea striker looking to the skies, and when his elbow struck De Rossi, they suddenly had in interest in what he had done and not what he hadn’t. Simply put, Spain looked more threatening with Torres on the pitch than with him on the bench, but the focus was on his lack of success.
Having been a goal down, Spain have done well to come away with a point. Italy, on the other hand, may rue the fact they let a lead slip so quickly. The Spaniards still look like a force to be reckoned with this tournament, despite the scoreline, but Italy may well be quart-finalists at best, lacking any real dynamism from midfield.
Man of the Match – Iniesta