There will be no dipping in a toe to test the waters in Group C as it kicks off with a heavyweight battle fit for a final: reigning world and European champion Spain against 2006 World Cup winner Italy. There’s also some recent history to remember: It was Spain’s penalty shootout win over Italy in a Euro 2008 quarterfinal that sparked La Furia Roja to the title, allowing them to finally shed the bridesmaid tag.
What’s on the line:
It might only be the first game of the group, but the winner (if there is one) will likely claim top spot given that both teams enter the match as the favorites to progress. For the loser, the pressure on subsequent games will increase exponentially.
Style and tactics:
Spain plays the most eye-catching soccer on the planet thanks to its emphasis on a slick, possession-based attack. On paper, Vicente Del Bosque’s side plays a 4-2-3-1, but there is plenty of interchanging of roles; expect the midfield three of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva liable to pop up anywhere. This is even truer if Silva assumes the lone forward position as a “false nine” and drops back into midfield. The only problem is that there are times when Spain becomes too predictable, attacking solely up the middle and ignoring the flanks. Still, Spain is spoiled for choice in attack.
“Our players are able to do everything,” said Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque. “They create the game; Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas, Iniesta, they can do everything. They are complete midfielders.”
Italy is no slouch, either, when it comes to the technical aspects of the game, and the current Azzurri team is far removed from its defensive-minded forebears. But a series of absences to the back line has forced a tactical rethink for manager Cesare Prandelli. Whereas before he had instituted a 4-3-1-2 system capable of playing its own possession game, the loss to injury of defender Andrea Barzagli and the departure of left back Domenico Criscito due to match fixing allegations could result in midfielder Daniele De Rossi being moved to center back with license to push up into midfield when needed. This will provide some defensive help to attacking hub Andrea Pirlo and help blunt the impact of Spain’s midfield. What won’t change is the ability of outside backs such as Christian Maggio to get into the attack.
“We have tried many [defensive] options,” Prandelli at Saturday’s news conference, referring to De Rossi’s role. “It could be new for you, but for us it is nothing new about it. De Rossi is already playing in this position for Rome. … We want to use De Rossi in this position because during the match we can change our [tactics] as well.”
Players to watch:
For Spain: Sergio Ramos, Xavi, David Silva
With captain Carles Puyol sidelined by injury and Gerard Pique suffering a dip in form, it will be up to Ramos to bolster the center of the defense, a role he played with aplomb this season at the club level after spending most of his career as a right back. Xavi continues to be the midfield conduit around which much of Spain’s attack flows, but he’ll have some considerable help from Silva, who will need to help pick up the slack created by the absence of injured striker David Villa.
“It’s true that Italy has changed players, they’ve changed their coach, they’ve changed their style, so this is going to be a fight for us,” said Del Bosque. “But we want to be the ones who have the initiative, the dynamism.”
For Italy: Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Mario Balotelli
Even at age 33, Pirlo remains a fabulous player blessed with superb passing range and an uncanny ability to read the game. His mobility is somewhat limited, however, and he’ll need the likes of De Rossi to hurry and harass Spain’s midfield; otherwise, Italy could have a long day chasing the ball. Balotelli’s suspect temperament makes him the ultimate wild card, a player equally capable of losing a game for his team as he is of winning one. But Italy has been guilty this tournament cycle of failing to turn possession into goals, and Balotelli’s ability in front of goal is unquestioned.
“As far as the management of Balotelli, it is always difficult for a 20-year-old guy, especially for those who want to show their value,” said Prandelli. “Balotelli has behaved in a really proper way in these last few weeks. Mario has to be aware of this, that he is very important to the team. I think if he plays for the team, [he] could be the right option.”
What we can expect:
This matchup is as mouth-watering as it gets. Spain will look to set the tempo and break down an Italy defense whose personnel is good but not great, especially now that Criscito has been removed from the squad and Andrea Barzagli is out due to a calf strain. Italy will have its moments in possession as well, the better to keep from being run ragged by Spain’s ability on the ball. In addition to Balotelli, Antonio Cassano is another player capable of the unexpected. Spain’s back line will need to remain vigilant. That said, Spain will have the majority of possession and will need to make sure there is variety to its attack.
After a disappointing World Cup in which it failed to escape the group stage, Italy will be highly motivated to prove that it remains among the international elite. The aforementioned allegations of match-fixing that are running through the Italian game right now could prove to be a distraction, but it’s worth noting that the last time the Azzurri faced such an obstacle, it went out and won the 2006 World Cup.
Spain faces the goal -- some would say burden -- of trying to become the first team to win three consecutive major tournaments. But it will do so without Puyol’s leadership and Villa’s goal-getting ability, two aspects that got the team through some difficult moments at the last World Cup. The ability of players such as Ramos and Silva to be impactful will loom large. Spain could also get a boost from erratic forward Fernando Torres. While El Nino has largely struggled at the club level with Chelsea, the word on the street is that his late-season surge has seen him regain his confidence; this development could really tilt things in Spain’s favor.
Given the aforementioned losses of Puyol and Villa, it has almost become trendy to bet against Spain, but its ability to control the tempo is a significant advantage, even against a team with the pedigree of Italy. Add to that the questions in the Italian defense, and this has the makings of a Spanish victory. Look for La Furia Roja to prevail 2-0.