Champions no more! Italy get sweet revenge on Spain in Conte masterclass

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The Azzurri avenged their 4-0 loss in the final of Euro 2012 by recording a thoroughly deserved 2-0 win over La Roja in Saint Denis


Italy's players refused to speak about revenge going into Monday's Euro 2016 last-16 clash with Spain in Saint Denis - so former team-mate Andrea Pirlo did it for them.

The veteran playmaker had been sitting in the stands, suspended, as the Azzurri were beaten on penalties by La Roja in the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 but was on the field four years later when they were routed 4-0 in the tournament decider.

The New York City FC midfielder had been left out of the travelling party this time around but he admitted on the eve of the two nations'  latest meeting that: "It would have been perfect to take revenge in another final but you can do that in the round of 16, too..." He wasn't wrong. This was a particularly sweet victory for Italy, who hadn't beaten Spain in a competitive fixture since the quarter-finals of the 1994 World Cup.

On that occasion, the Azzurri had relied on the brutal brilliance of their back-line and the individual excellence of Roberto Baggio to progress to the last four. This current crop don't have a single player blessed with the sumptuous skills of 'Il Divino Codino ' but they do have a defence worthy of comparison with Franco Baresi & Co.

Once again, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini were immaculate - not that we should have been surprised. They have repeatedly nullified the best attackers in the world over the past five years, so they were always unlikely to struggle to contain Alvaro Morata, a player that they know inside out, having spent two seasons training alongside the Spain striker before his summer return to Real Madrid.

However, it would be wrong to pain this fantastic triumph as a classic demonstration of Italy's traditional defensive qualities. They were just as impressive from an offensive perspective, taking the game to Spain right from the first whistle, and they could have won by even more than two unanswered goals.

The injury-enforced absence of Antonio Candreva should have hit Italy hard but Alessandro Florenzi flourished on the right-hand side. Indeed, the Roma man and fellow wing-back Mattia De Sciglio ran riot during the first half, creating chance after chance with inviting deliveries from the flanks before substitute Matteo Darmian followed suit by setting up Graziano Pelle for the game-deciding strike in the dying seconds.

Daniele De Rossi marshalled the middle of the park wonderfully well, while Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo struck a fine balance between protecting their back three and supporting the excellent Eder and Pelle in attack. It was no surprise that the livewire Giaccherini played a prominent role in the opening goal, pouncing on a loose ball after David de Gea had spilled Eder's well-struck free kick to effectively tee up Chiellini for a tap-in.

Giaccherini very nearly netted himself just before the break but De Gea made a breathtaking one-handed stop to deny the Italians what would have been a deserved two-goal advantage. In truth, while De Gea was to blame for Chiellini's goal, it was his sensational shot-stopping that kept Spain the game, with the Manchester United No.1 producing spectacular saves to deny Pelle and Eder.

In complete contrast to Italy, Spain were shambolic in defence. Both Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique looked lethargic and panicked, while Juanfran and Jordi Alba were contained by Florenzi and De Sciglio.

In addition, Spain's much-vaunted midfield surprisingly struggled to exert any influence over the midfield battle ground for the guts of 70 minutes. Even when they did apply some pressure, the 38-year-old Gianluigi Buffon was once again there to prove that he remains the greatest goalkeeper in the world and ensure that Italy secured the victory that their performance warranted.

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While the players deserve plenty of plaudits, this was another fantastic feat from Conte. His instructions were carried out to perfection. His players were tigerish in the tackle yet incredibly disciplined. However, Conte was the man with the plan.

As Pirlo explained: "Conte is able to impose a very precise identity on the team. Organisation is key for him, so players come and go with no difference, as everyone knows what they are meant to do down to the smallest detail. The feeling you get when you play is that you can hurt the opposition at any moment because what you worked on to the point of exhaustion really does pay off in a match situation."

In that sense, Monday's masterclass in Saint Denis was arguably the greatest vindication of Conte's coaching philosophy to date.

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