You couldn’t ignore the omens. All three group-winners had gone out of the competition in the quarterfinals. Spain hadn’t beaten Italy in a competitive fixture in 88 years. There’s the precedent of Spain stumbling in the knockout rounds after an impressive group stage, while the Italians often start slow only to improve as the tournament progresses. And the Furia Roja had been knocked out of international competitions on June 22nd on penalties at the quarterfinal stage on three separate occasions -- World Cup ’86 and ’02 and Euro ’96.
You almost knew how this game was going to play out before the whistle blew. Spain was going to have the majority of possession, but Italy would pack bodies in defense and throttle the life out of the Spanish attack. After eking through a tumultuous group stage, the Italians probably would have settled for penalties from the get-go. And for 120 minutes, that’s exactly how it played out.
It doesn’t do the cliché justice to say chances were at a premium. With Italy content to let Spain have the ball, but relegate their possession to midfield and the wings while swiftly shutting down any attacker with the ball in the final third, the Spanish had to be content with mostly long-range efforts throughout the first half. David Silva threatened the most often, but with Panucci, Chiellini, De Rossi, and Ambrosini quick to close down the ball Buffon was rarely tested.
Spain could have had a couple of penalties, with Grosso pulling Torres’ shirt and Ambrosini chopping down Villa a minute later, but Herbert Fandel ignored both. Which wouldn’t have been all that surprising (although Villa probably did deserve his shout) if Fandel wasn’t blowing his whistle at every opportunity when it was outside the box, especially for Spanish fouls on the Italians. By the end of the match, Andy Gray was beside himself with the referee, which always makes for amusing commentary.
Only twice in the second half did the script deviate from the first, with each side nearly getting a goal in a match where one goal always looked enough. In the 61st minute, a ball over the top created a scramble in the Spanish penalty area that Camoranesi got on the end of, only to see Casillas get back into position to make an excellent instinctive save with his left leg. In the 81st, with Spain still resorting to deep shots, Buffon fumbled an excellent long-range effort from Senna, but instead of rolling over the line it bounced back to the keeper off the post.
Aragones attempted to change the game with the same substitutions as against Sweden, with Cazorla on for Iniesta and Fabregas for Xavi, but they failed to make the same impact. In addition, with five minutes left in normal time, Spain’s last roll of the dice was to remove Torres for Dani Guiza. I may be incredibly biased, and Torres didn’t have his best game (he was better in the second half), but the move seemed insane. Liverpool fans excoriated Benitez for taking Torres off in extra time of the Champions League semi-final, and at least then Torres was arguably injured. It makes zero sense to take off one of the best strikers in the world when you need a goal, and Spain nearly paid for it during penalties.
Once the teams made it to extra time, with both sets of players tiring, penalties looked inevitable (although penalties looked inevitable throughout the contest). Italy sent on Del Piero with their last substitution, but chances were still few and far between, with the best coming at the death when Cazorla tried a shot, putting it wide from a tough angle, when centering across the six-yard box would have led to a certain Villa goal.
By going to penalties it looked like history would repeat itself once again, and Spain would lose on spot kicks on June 22nd for the fourth time. But, finally, all those years of history were avenged.
Villa, Grosso, and Cazorla netted before De Rossi’s decent effort was well saved by Casillas. Both Senna and Camoranesi scored before Guiza’s tame penalty was easily stopped, bringing the Italians back into it. I’m fairly certain Torres’ would have offered a bit more. But luckily, Di Natale’s for Italy was just as tame and Fabregas sealed it with Spain’s fifth, breaking all those jinxes listed earlier and setting up a semi-final against the Russians.
The semi-final will be completely different from the first meeting where the Spanish rolled. First and foremost, Arshavin is back for Russia, and he’s been one of the stars of the tournament in the two games he’s played. Without him, Russia probably wouldn’t have made it out of the group and certainly wouldn’t have beaten the Dutch. Hiddink has his entire side playing well, but Arshavin is the centerpiece.
And the Russians will probably replicate what the Italians did today, which was quite similar to how Russia played Holland yesterday. Defenders will pack the middle and Russia will look to attack on the counter, which they’ve done better than the Italians all tournament long. Russia assuredly won’t play as openly as they did in the first meeting.
In the last three games, Spain has squeezed by teams in tight games where they’ve been able to play possession football but haven’t created numerous chances on goal. They’ll have to do it again on Wednesday against an in-form side full of confidence after beating the tournament favorites.