By Mark Doyle | Italy Expert
Spain may have progressed to the final of the Confederations Cup at the expense of Italy, but the Azzurri got so much more out of their meeting in Fortaleza on Thursday night.
On the evidence of their preceding three games in Brazil, la Nazionale had actually regressed over the past 12 months. It seemed that, if anything, the gap between Italy and Spain had widened since la Roja had retained their European title with a resounding 4-0 victory over Cesare Prandelli's men in Kiev last summer.
However, sometimes it's necessary to take a step back in order to move forward, and so it proved at the Estadio Castelao. Having persisted with a four-man defence since the Euros, Prandelli elected to return to the three-man defence which had served his side so well in their 1-1 draw with Spain the group stages of Euro 2012; the same three-man defence that allows Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Cheillini to occupy the same positions all three perform so wonderfully well for their club, Juventus.
Was it any wonder, then, that Italy looked so secure against the Spanish? Having shipped eight goals in their previous three games, the Azzurri kept the most successful national team in history at bay for 120 minutes in stifling heat and suffocating humidity - and did so quite comfortably. Indeed, Spain did not manage a single shot on target in the first half.
|SPAIN NEED FORWARD THINKING
|THE SPAIN PERSPECTIVE
|“Spain were not at their brilliant best on Thursday. Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa struggled in the full-back positions, while even Xavi looked off the pace at times. It was the three forwards, however, who left the biggest doubts.
"Vicente del Bosque sprang a surprise by starting David Silva and Fernando Torres alongside the recently prolific Pedro in attack. And it didn't work. Torres' finishing was poor, Silva's influence was minimal and Pedro had one of his forgettable forays.
"Jesus Navas gave Spain more dynamism and stretched the Italian defence, while Cesc Fabregas (probably unfit after suffering an injury against Nigeria) and David Villa were left on the bench. Likewise Roberto Soldado, who has not grabbed his chance in this competition. Indeed, la Roja ended up with Javi Martinez as a false nine and Gerard Pique surging forwards. That is not and cannot be the plan.
"A year before the World Cup, then, and there may be places up for grabs. Alvaro Negredo, Isco, Thiago, even Cristian Tello will have been interesting observers on Thursday. For all their fantastic football, Spain lack some sparkle in attack - and those players have a year to prove they merit a place at Brazil's bigger summer showpiece in 2014.”
- Ben Hayward | Spain Expert
Daniele De Rossi proved just as influential, though, the outstanding player on show in a midfield populated almost exclusively by modern greats. The Roma man made two crunching tackles inside the opening five minutes alone, setting the tone for a majestic performance, the quality of which never wavered, even after his redeployment in defence following Andrea Barzagli's injury-enforced withdrawal at the interval. That De Rossi switched so seamlessly into the back three was no surprise, of course, given he'd played an outstanding 90 minutes in that very position in the group game with Spain in Gdansk.
Of course, Italy didn't just contain la Roja, they also pushed them backwards. Emanuele Giaccherini proved such a handful on the left wing that we saw virtually nothing of Jordi Alba - who scored twice for Spain in their 3-0 win over Nigeria - going forward. The Barcelona full-back's sole concern for large tracts of the game was keeping Giaccherini under control. He struggled in that regard, with Giaccherini setting up the equally effective Christian Maggio for the best opening of the game, before later crashing a snap-shot against the post.
Giaccherini would have made for a worthy matchwinner, as he has typified Italy's adventurous approach in this most open of tournaments. However, Antonio Candreva produced the most intrepid performance of the evening. The Lazio winger was involved in a lot of Italy's best attacking moves and never once turned down an opportunity to run at the Spanish defence. His stamina was also astounding, Candreva earning his side a free kick in a dangerous position in the second period of extra time with a fine run down the flank.
The highlight of this coming-of-age performance, though, was his penalty. That he accepted the responsibility of taking the first spot kick in a semi-final shootout against the reigning world and European champions was impressive enough.
However, his penalty was just ridiculously bold, the 26-year-old electing to take a leaf out of Andrea Pirlo's book by nonchalantly chipping the ball over the legs of an already committed Iker Casillas. It was an fittingly fearless penalty at the end of a fantastically fearless display.
Admittedly, the lack of a capable replacement for Mario Balotelli remains a major concern. From an Italian perspective, Stephan El Shaarawy, who didn't see a minute of action, was the only real loser on the night - but the Azzurri at least now know that they simply have to revert to a three-man defence for the remainder of their World Cup qualification campaign. Do that and there's no reason why they cannot be back in Brazil in 12 months' time battling it out with Spain for the title.
Italy have the heart, the character, the experience and enough quality to entertain thoughts of a fifth World Cup, though they will clearly need a little bit more luck. However, as Prandelli said, "We have earned respect tonight: the respect of our opponents. We also have the awareness that we're able to compete with the very best."