10 June 2012

Spain 1-1 Italy

Di Natale 61'
Fabregas 64'

Now that was a proper football match. Italy were outstanding for the first hour as Spain suffered and stuttered against a packed 3-5-2 midfield; Prandelli's side set up perfectly against Spain's tactics.

Di Natale's goal on the hour could have been a hammer blow, but Spain's starters, specifically the struggling Fabregas, replied immediately. Del Bosque followed with immediate, necessary tactical changes, and Spain probably should have won the match from 1-1, with multiple chances against the tiring Italians.

The starting Spanish formation seemed designed to counter Chelsea vs Barca style last ditch packed defending. Instead, Italy's formation clogged the middle of pitch, with the added bonus of wing-backs stifling Spain's fullbacks, frequently the only source of width for the defending champions.

It seems obvious. Spain's squad is chock-full of central midfielders, with little attacking width and no out-and-out striker. So Italy countered by packing the midfield rather than parking the bus. Spain out-possessed and out-passed Italy throughout, as per usual, but the patience of a Xabi, Xavi, and Busquets midfield was rarely a virtue with Italy's swarming presence in the middle of the pitch. Italy also did very well shifting from five in midfield to five at the back at the right times, a sign of a well-coached team.

And Italy had the better chances in the first half as every Spanish attacker other than Iniesta disappointed. Pirlo tested Casillas with a free kick, Marchisio with a well-hit volley, and Motta with a strong header from Cassano's cross; the AC Milan striker was a permanent threat pulling wide and into space between the lines. Meanwhile, Silva had a couple of tame efforts and Iniesta's chances were well-saved at the near post and volleyed over and that was about it in the final third.

That man Iniesta once again came close soon after the restart, but Buffon just got fingers to his narrow-angled shot across the face of goal. Minutes later, Balotelli should have opened the scoring, reminiscent of Suarez's FA Cup semifinal goal two months ago. Balotelli's pressure forced Ramos into a sloppy back pass, putting the striker through on goal, but he bafflingly lingered, waiting for Casillas to give him an obvious opening that was never coming, and Ramos charged back to close down.

That Balotelli was hauled off soon after was no coincidence, replaced by Di Natale. Who opened the scoring almost immediately as Pirlo turned back the years, easily charging past Busquets and splitting the centerbacks with an inch-perfect throughball, with Di Natale racing behind Pique and Ramos and coolly finishing around Casillas.

An Italian side, whether club or country, with a one goal lead is usually a death sentence. But Spain didn't allow them to settle into all too typical catenaccio. The misfiring Silva and Fabregas tallied the assist and goal, with the move unsurprisingly started by Iniesta and Xavi. A very Spanish, very Barcelona goal: carving through multiple bodies in the final third with quick, one-touch, perfectly-angled passes. Xavi driving forward from deep, passing to Iniesta who somehow found space for a lay-off to Silva despite two Italian markers. Silva's immediate turn and through for Fabregas, who finally made a run from deep in behind a center-back. No time to control, a quick, unstoppable low point blank finish with his weaker foot. Two excellent goals within five minutes, both coming from players making clever runs behind determined defenders. We didn't see enough of that today, whether due to both sides' tactics and defensive abilities or individual attackers' failings.

Even though Silva and Fabregas were at the heart of the goal, those were the two replaced when Del Bosque made changes, first bringing on Navas for Silva to stretch the play wider, necessary since the full-backs provided little help and especially helpful with Italy's left-sided wingback, Giaccherini predominantly right-footed. Then Torres for Fabregas, replacing a false nine with an actual nine. In theory.

And Italy were on the back foot for those final 25 minutes, vulnerable to Spain's changes and clearly tiring after the first hour's intensity. Torres should have been the hero, with three chances to score what probably would have been the game winner. Sadly – and I say that as a Liverpool fan who delights in schadenfreude – he continued in the form that's seen him go from the most-feared striker in world football to a comedy figure complete with jester hat, scepter, and slippers with bells on them.

In the 75th, a minute after coming on, he cleverly beat the offside trap, played through by Navas on a quick counter, but Buffon brilliantly charged forward to steal the ball off Torres' toe. In the 83rd, in a similar position again from Navas' pass, Torres lingered inside the box and eventually saw his cutback cut out. Two minutes later, this time set up by Xavi, his chip from outside the box sailed onto the roof of the net, the wrong decision with Navas open on the right. All in all, not the most impressive of cameos and, unfortunately, rather par for the course these days.

Each side will probably be content with a draw – well, as content as you can be with a draw in a major tournament. The draw is certainly a fair result, and both sides will remain favorites to qualify from the group. It's not the first time either side's started slowly; Spain won the last World Cup despite losing its first group game while Italy are notoriously slow starters – unimpressive in its 2006 World Cup group and barely qualifying for the 1994 World Cup knockout stages, a tournament they only lost on penalty kicks. And both sides learned an awful lot about their players and tactical set-up.


Jay Wright said...

pretty cool (and impressively quick!) write-up - do u guys take notes and type all game long?!

Only thing I'd add is that Pirlo & Silva deserve more credit for their assists - those were some quality passes!

And Torres deserves more derision for all of those misses that he made yet again, especially considering the time and space that he had on each occasion to finish the tiring opposition off. Carroll certainly would be vilified no end if he put in the same sort of performance...

nate said...

Thanks; I've plenty of practice with firing off match reports as quickly as possible because of years of doing it for Liverpool. The process is basically the same for both. Hand-written notes throughout the match, formation diagrams at halftime, and outlining the match report when I notice things I absolutely want to mention. Then an attempt to get the review posted within 30-45 minutes of full time, because that's always when I'm searching for things I want to read about the sporting event I just watched. Some matches merit stats-heavy images, like Saturday's Netherlands-Denmark, but some, like this, seem more suited to the narrative approach.

I agree on both your other points, both the quality of assists and Torres' failings, and thought I hit those in the above report.

Clint said...

Would be interesting to see passing graphs between Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard. Really didn't seem like they were on the same wavelength. And if England did have possession, likely that they were bypassed by the back four to hit the channels for Welbeck and Young to run into. Which, to be fair, Hodgson did have some success with. More because the gaps between center backs and outside backs was big enough for 3 Andy Carrolls to waltz through.

Damu said...

Hi Nate, a huge fan of yours and a regular follower too.

Didn't Super Mario win the ball from Ramos and then charge on, more reminiscent of Suarez's second versus Norwich.