A mouthwatering matchup between the past two World Cup winners became all the more engrossing as both managers made brave tactical decisions ahead of the game. After a 1-1 tie, one man, Italy’s Cesare Prandelli was left seeming bold. The other, Spain’s Vicente del Bosque, appeared more desperate.
The decisions were different responses to a similar problem -- the lack of the team’s best-fit striker. Spain’s David Villa was unable to recover from the broken leg sustained at the Club World Cup last December. Italy’s Giuseppe Rossi has been a long-term absence after suffering a double ACL tear.
In the run-up to the tournament, Spanish fans have obsessively studied the relative merit and demerits of the three strikers bought in to replace Villa. The rugged giant Fernando Llorente, Sevilla’s poacher Alvaro Negredo, delightfully known as the “Wild Animal of Vallecas,” and Chelsea’s Fernando Torres, a fallen hero who has publically suffered so much over the past two seasons he makes it almost possible to feel pity for a man rumored to make more than $310,000 a week.
Del Bosque stunned every prognosticator by condemning all three men to a substitute’s bib on the bench. Spain kicked off its title defense without playing a recognized striker, depending on six recognized midfielders instead, with Cesc Fabregas, listed by UEFA at 5-foot-8, nominally in the center forward role.
Italy’s decision was every bit as much of a gamble. First, Prandelli put his faith in two strikers, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, a tandem as combustible as a wheat field during a drought. If the football world had a “Volatile Maverick Hall of Fame,” both these men would be shoo-ins on the first ballot.
If that was not enough of a gamble, Prandelli unleashed another surprising tactical improvisation. The Italian coach elected to counter Spain’s midfield superiority by playing just three defenders at the back in an untested formation with midfield anchor, Daniele De Rossi, playing out of position at sweeper.
This ambitious Italian 3-5-2 lineup against the Spaniard “false nine” formation (in which a center forward drops deep to unbalance the opposition’s defense) sent tactical football purists into pregame rapture.
At the outset, Italy appeared skittish, as if afraid of Spain’s trademarked mechanics and movement. In an interview in the soccer journal, “The Blizzard,” former French World Cup winner Didier Deschamps explained that with the paper-cut passing of the Spanish “it’s hard to make players understand it is those who haven’t got the ball who matter,” referring to the psychological threat posed by men running off the ball, which wears opponents down.
Crucially, Spain dominated possession, as is its custom, but deprived of a focal point for the attack, the passing was shorn of its intention. Lacking its familiar triangle pattern, it became as circular as an MC Escher staircase.
Italy drew strength from De Rossi’s play. Oddly garbed, with one long sleeve and one short, he stood alongside the Modigliani-esque Giorgio Chiellini, repelling wave after wave of impish Spaniard advances with relish. Watching Spain’s passing machine splutter only heightened the appreciation one must feel for its mesmerizing passing game when it is on song.
Cassano was a delight, clearly thrilled to be back in the international fold after suffering a stroke and a heart operation. The AC Milan striker is a controversial figure. Few footballers have invested such energy in the bacchanalian culture that surrounds the game. In his autobiography he proclaimed a love for women and doughnuts, often at the same time. But against Spain, he appeared fully rejuvenated, bold in invention and execution.
His sidekick Balotelli showed commitment mixed with frustration. One delightfully improvised flick, for which he reached back with the underside of his boot to keep the ball in bounds, drew applause from Spanish and Italian fans alike. But his game was best summed up by the moment he dispossessed Sergio Ramos and ran in on goal unopposed, but the shot never came. Balotelli simply slowed down, allowing himself to be bundled over like a man who suddenly realized the novelty undershirt statement he had painstakingly prepared in case of goal celebration was not that funny after all.
The Manchester City nonconformist was replaced by Antonio Di Natale, whose impact was instant as he ran onto a magnificent pass to slide the ball home with his first touch. The Italians were 1-0 ahead and the only surprising aspect of the goal was that Torres was able to suppress a fist pump of delight on the bench.
Spain’s response was immediate. For a moment it flashed back to the kaleidoscopic passing patterns of 2010. David Silva tapped a no-look pass into Fabregas’ stride and the Barcelona man made no mistake.
Torres made a humiliating end-of-game cameo, as if Del Bosque had sent him on to prove to the world why he did not choose to play his confidence-sapped striker from the outset. Within seconds he botched a one-on-one with keeper Gianluigi Buffon, who not only stopped him, but stayed on his feet to tackle him to win the ball.
Italy tired noticeably in the last quarter of an hour as Spain played with increased urgency but it was able to stand strong. With its domestic game blighted by a spiraling match-fixing scandal, this display of commitment, guts and fearlessness will thrill a nation of disenchanted doubters and give them reason to believe.
Spain’s coaching staff will have to carefully address its tactical options before lining up against Ireland on Thursday. It lost the first game of the 2010 World Cup 1-0 to Switzerland and recovered to win it all. As German coach Jogi Loew articulated on Saturday, the first game of a tournament is like being forced to start “at 100 percent in Formula One, only without a warm-up lap.” But unless Spain can find a way to trust one of its three strikers with a starting place, Euro 2012’s most influential player may turn out to be a Qatari -- Abdulla Koni, the Al-Sadd defender involved in David Villa's broken leg.
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.