La Roja face the Azzurri on Tuesday evening in the semi-final of Euro 2020. It’s a titanic clash between two heavyweights of the European game; Spain have three European Championships and one World Cup to their name while Italy have four World Cups and one European Championship to theirs.
Spain opened their campaign with disappointing draws against Sweden and Poland, playing in front of an expectant and unforgiving home crowd down in Seville. Trouble seemed afoot, only for La Roja to click against Slovakia and win 5-0. They followed that up with a helter-skelter 5-3 defeat of Croatia in the last 16 and a nervy penalty shootout victory over Switzerland in the quarter-finals. They’re imperfect, but a threat.
Italy have had a smoother ride. They scored seven goals in the group phase of the competition and didn’t concede once, seeing off Turkey, Switzerland and Wales with ease. Tougher tests came against Austria and Belgium, however, with Roberto Mancini’s men winning both 2-1 – the former in extra-time.
Spain have three things in their favour, three things that could be decisive in seeing off a talented and in-form Italian team and securing a place in the final against either Denmark or England. They have the Luis Enrique effect, a dominant midfield and a frontline that can be sensational when it clicks.
The Luis Enrique effect is interesting. It refers to the absolute faith he places in his own opinion and by extension the players he decides to field. Two clear beneficiaries of this have been Unai Simon and Alvaro Morata.
Both have come under fire for their consistent presence in the starting lineup before and during Euro 2020, but both have been given unwavering backing from the strong-willed Asturian in the dugout. Both have been clear in saying that they’d run through brick walls for the man; a powerful thing coming from the players operating at the two decisive ends of the pitch.
Spain’s midfield is a clear strength. Luis Enrique started with Rodri at the base of midfield with Pedri and Koke either side of the Manchester City man, but brought Sergio Busquets back into the fold after he returned from his coronavirus-enforced hiatus.
The elder lemon and captain of the team has been superb, clearly in charge on the field and peerlessly capable of providing the foundation of Spain’s constructive phase. Koke, fresh off captaining Atletico Madrid to La Liga glory, offers a similarly mature and competent presence, while Pedri is the crown jewel.
The 18-year-old has arguably been Euro 2020’s best young player, astounding all with his intelligence, confidence and composure on the pitch. Pedri, it seems, will be at the heart of this Spanish midfield for many tournaments to come.
The frontline is a more mercurial presence. First off, it’s been interchangeable and inconsistent; only Morata is guaranteed of a spot. In place either side of the Juventus marksman has been a rotating cast; Ferran Torres, Dani Olmo, Gerard Moreno and Mikel Oyarzabal have all featured.
In this sense, Spain’s weakness is also their strength. They don’t have a David Villa or a Fernando Torres, a genuinely world-class leading man that can turn their dominance in possession into goals. Instead, they have several talented players who can do damage on their day. This is the big unknown in this Spanish team; will that frontline deliver?
Morata’s shoulders are too narrow to carry the attack; he needs his partners to step up to the plate. They did it against Germany, against Slovakia and against Croatia. Whether they can do it against Italy could decide whether Spain stand up when it’s time to be counted or wilt in the face of Mancini’s blue storm.