‘Jesus!’ ran Marca’s headline following Spain and Italy’s titanic battle in Fortaleza. And, it was not just because it was Jesus Navas spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out that booked the world champions a place in the final. But, also for how, somehow, they weathered the ultra humid and muggy conditions to ultimately prevail against a tactically perfect Azzurri.
Speaking after the game, Iker Casillas – who was voted man-of-the-match – said: “It could have very well been an Italy-Brazil fine. We were lucky.” And they were, particularly in the first 45 minutes of play where it was the Italians, to everyone’s surprise, that took the game to La Roja and came out on top.
Italy employed a direct style, looking to break away every time they got on the ball by playing in Alberto Gilardino, Christian Maggio, Emanuele Giaccherini or Antonio Candreva. In response and in contrast to their usual pressing from the very front, Spain were forced to sit back and cover the gaps that were appearing behind their defence.
As a result, possession was shared evenly by the sides. But, as for chances, it was the four-time world champions that were left wondering how they were not in front at half-time. Casillas was certainly one factor.
Even Vicente del Bosque admitted his side struggled in the first half: “They were better in first half, but we took the second, and we were stronger in extra time.”
And Del Bosque’s own decisions during the course of the match were pivotal in turning the tide of proceedings. Not even 10 minutes into the second period, he introduced Jesus Navas for the largely ineffective David Silva and the new Manchester City man, as usual, added a new dimension to the Spanish game. In addition, his pace frightened an increasingly lagged Giorgio Chiellini who had to call upon Giaccherini for help in dealing with the former Sevilla man, thus limiting his influence in the attacking half from there on out.
Minutes after Navas’ arrival, Spain registered their first shot on target. Yes, that is correct. It took an hour before they finally tested Gianluigi Buffon in the Italian goal. Yet, in what was a highly intriguing tactical battle between two heavyweights of the international game, chances in general were at a premium. This was as close a game as they come.
With the fresh legs of substitutes Juan Mata and Javi Martinez – unusually brought on as Fernando Torres’ replacement in the front three – in the most hostile conditions, both in regards to the weather and the crowd at the stadium who were clearly behind Cesare Prandelli’s side, Spain slowly but surely started to get the better of Italy who, physically, began to suffer.
“Over the course of the match things balanced out and Italy looked increasingly tired, which allowed us to come out,” Del Bosque later remarked. Yet, it was not enough. Although they came close to beating Buffon as the game entered extra-time, Italy were not completely down and out either. Both sides struck the woodwork. Even into the dying stages, the game could have gone either way.
As ever when it comes to penalties, this is certainly always the case. As Casillas described later: “penalties are a lottery.” And, in the end, Spain won the lottery.
It should be noted that taking a penalty after a gruelling and taxing two-hour hit-out under such pressure is far from easy. Yet, both sides made it look as such as 13 consecutive penalties were expertly stroked home with Casillas and Buffon barely close to saving one.
Finally however, it was Spain who ever so slightly had that little bit extra, that finer nerve and champion quality to come out on top as they have done on so many occasions in recent years. And, it was this that ultimately saw them prevail.