GDANSK, Poland -- There was elation for Antonio Di Natale, vindication for Cesc Fabregas, and more misery for Fernando Torres. Add it all up, and it made for an action-packed 1-1 tie between Spain and Italy in the Euro 2012 opener for both sides.
Italy had broken on top in the 61st minute, when Di Natale ran onto a gorgeous through ball from Andrea Pirlo and coolly finished past Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas. But three minutes later, Fabregas hammered his shot past Gianluigi Buffon after taking a deft pass from David Silva.
At which point the match seemed perfectly suited for Torres to play the role of hero. Coming on as a 75th-minute substitute, the Chelsea striker was active and running at a tired Italian defense. But his finishing was no better than it had been for most of his season at club level. He managed to waste a trio of glorious chances, and the game ended level.
It’s a result that should do little to lessen each team’s hopes of advancement, as the two sides remain the favorites to progress. But given the makeshift nature of the Italian defense, it is Italy that will take a greater measure of satisfaction in the result.
The big news before the match had to do with the lineup choice of Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque. After weeks of speculation as to whether he would start Torres or Alvaro Negredo as his lone striker, Del Bosque threw everyone a curve by tabbing Fabregas in the role, ostensibly as a false nine.
Less surprising was Italy manager Cesare Prandelli’s decision to insert nominal midfielder Daniele De Rossi into the back line, a move necessitated by the departure of Domenico Criscito due to match-fixing allegations, as well as an injury to center back Andrea Barzagli.
But if Prandelli’s approach seemed a sign that Italy would park the bus in front of goal, that’s not how it played out in the first half. Spain did have its usual lengthy spells of possession, but La Roja often seemed to be in a futile pursuit of the perfect goal, opting to pass rather than shoot. And when they did take a crack at goal, there was usually an Italian defender in their way.
But Italy had its share of bright moments in attack as well. Even when Spain tried to pressure Pirlo in his own half, Italy was largely able to play out of pressure. This allowed the Italian midfield to find Antonio Cassano in dangerous spots and he ended up being the first half’s most dangerous player.
A through ball in the 23rd minute found Cassano in space, only for him to drag his shot wide of goal with front-line partner Mario Balotelli lurking nearby. Eleven minutes later, Pirlo picked Cassano out on the left wing, and after cutting inside, his drive forced an awkward, low save from Casillas. Then just a minute before halftime, Cassano turned provider. His cross found a wide-open Thiago Motta in the box, but his bullet header forced a superb reflex save by Casillas.
Just prior to that moment, Spain conjured up its best chance of the half, with Xavi’s pass finding Andres Iniesta in a sliver of space, but his trap and shot sailed just over the crossbar.
That proved to be a sign of things to come in the second half. Spain’s high-pressure defending began to tell and both Fabregas and Iniesta came close to scoring in the first six minutes.
Italy then had a great chance to go ahead in the 54th minute when Balotelli dispossessed Sergio Ramos in his own half, but the clear breakaway that resulted came to nothing as the Italian striker dithered on the ball, allowing Ramos to recover and make a vital tackle.
Balotelli’s involvement ended just minutes later, coming off in the 56th minute for Di Natale, and it proved a master stroke, as the Udinese striker scored just five minutes after coming on.
Yet Spain struck back almost immediately. Silva’s clever ball found Fabregas coming in from the blind side, and he hammered his shot past Buffon to level the score in the 64th minute.
Both managers then made substitutions, with Spain bringing on Jesus Navas for Silva while Sebastian Giovinco entered for Cassano. Torres came on for Fabregas just a minute later, and all were involved almost immediately as the game became more end-to-end.
Torres was sprung on a clear breakaway only to be tackled cleanly by Buffon when he tried to round him. Giovinco then clipped in a delicate cross that Di Natale volleyed just wide.
The misery didn’t end for Torres. He was put clean through again five minutes from time, only to see his lob attempt go over the bar.
Each side came close to netting a goal in the closing stages, but the score remained level, giving players on both sides a measure of satisfaction. Well, everyone except the player once fearfully referred to as El Nino.