When Sergio Ramos strode up from 12 yards to confirm Spain’s topping of Group D, a huge sigh of relief was waiting in the wings from all Italians back at home, yet a save from Danijel Subasic, alongside a late strike from Inter’s Ivan Perisic, left Italy contemplating what could have been.
Unfortunately for both sides, they are the go-to game for the Round of 16.
It is not a first meeting in over 20 or 30 years for these two, facing each other competitively as recently as the final of Euro 2012, where despite stunning Germany 2-1 in the semi-finals, the Azzurri were crushed by the Spaniards 4-0.
Of course, Italy are out for revenge. Back in 2008, after Spain squeezed past Italy on penalties following a tight 0-0, La Roja have not looked back. In fact, some have said that Spain’s success began after that victory, their first ever over the Italians, and ended with the aforementioned 4-0.
It is time now for Antonio Conte to quash those memories.
Will it be tough? Silly question. Yet many believe this could be a blessing in disguise for Italy. The ‘tournament team’, as some have labelled them, always rise up to the occasion against the so-called big nations. Supporters would rather they had the following run to the final – Spain, Germany, France – than featuring in the apparent ‘easier’ side of the knockout stages.
The Juventus quartet at the back – Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci – already have an advantage. They know Alvaro Morata.
One of the standout strikers thus far has been the former and now-current Real Madrid man, who has scored the joint-most number of goals – three alongside Wales’ Gareth Bale.
The key for Spain is not Morata, in the sense of creating chances, but the wide men. Alvaro is the ‘cherry-on-top’ type for this clash, to put the ball in the net when chances are created.
With Italy sticking to their 3-5-2 style, emphasis from Vicente del Bosque has to be placed on making the pitch as wide as possible in an attempt to stretch the five-man midfield. Players such as Nolito are vital, getting to the by-line before playing in low-driven crosses. There won’t be much, if any luck, with high-flying crosses unless a lapse in concentration occurs such as against Republic of Ireland.
Another key focus relates to the opposite defence, in the shape of Spain. They have been given some respite due to Antonio Candreva’s injury, a big miss for Conte’s team and a clear blessing for the Spaniards. Despite this, both Ramos and Gerard Pique must be on the top of the game, avoiding any tired moments at the back that could let the Italian version of Perisic nick in to score. Realistically, that ‘Perisic’ should be either Lorenzo Insigne or Stephan El Shaarawy, but Alessandro Florenzi will most likely start.
Italy are up for this one, with Conte trotting out the everyday clichés that Spain are the favourites, attempting to ignite some form of demoralisation towards Del Bosque’s side ahead of the match.
Spain did not want this, though. Teams want to beat them, to prove themselves. Italy were that sort of team, but not anymore. There is no Fabio Cannavaro, no Francesco Totti. Only two, Buffon and Barzagli, were part of the 2006 World Cup-winning team.
This fixture has never failed to disappoint, so expect a hard fought and tactical affair. Let’s just hope it is better than Croatia v Portugal. That should not be too hard, though.