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Fernando Torres might have been a disappointment for Spain against Italy, but there's no doubt that his introduction made them a better team.
It may not be as surprising as Holland falling to Denmark, but most did not anticipate that Italy would take any points from title-holders Spain. Instead, on Saturday night in Gdansk, the two shared the spoils, leaving room for Croatia or Ireland to take top in Group C. It was substitute Antonio Di Natale that broke the deadlock, scoring in the 60th minute, but Cesc Fabregas responded less than five minutes later with an equaliser for la roja.
When news broke about the selected formations for both sides, tactical nerds knew they were in for a treat. Vincente del Bosque went with a 4-3-3, but without a true striker, playing Fabregas as a false nine. Cesare Prandelli did just as expected, putting the azzurri in a 3-5-2, although some of his selections were slightly questionable (Emanuele Giaccherini? Really?).
The tactical battle may have been interesting in the abstract, but it didn't bring that much excitement to the pitch. For the first half, Spain played their predictable football, passing the ball through the midfield in a pretty sort of way, but barely exerting the effort to make a challenge on goal. Italy, bless their hearts, had a few decent chances -- but someone needs to let Prandelli in on the secret that the Antonio Cassano - Mario Balotelli pairing just isn't working well. Cassano needs much more support up front, while Balotelli often squanders more chances than he creates.
After the break, things appeared much more lively, as both sides started applying more pressure on the opposing defence. About ten minutes after the re-start, Balotelli created a textbook example of why he maybe shouldn't be starting for Italy. After winning an aerial battle against Sergio Ramos, the forward went one-on-one with Iker Casillas. But he took too much time setting up the shot, allowing Jordi Alba the opportunity to slide in for the ball.
His punishment? Being replaced by Antonio Di Natale. His true punishment? Seeing Toto score just minutes after he entered the pitch. The diminutive striker pounced on a ball from Andrea Pirlo, easily rounding Sergio Ramos. There was nothing Casillas could do as Di Natale looped the ball over his shoulder to settle in the far corner of the net.
Celebrations for Italy were short-lived, however. Fabregas was out to prove himself and his inclusion. He picked up a pass from David Silva and, with Giaccherini nowhere to be seen, easily nicked the ball past Gigi Buffon. 65 minutes had passed, all was equal, and that is how it would stay.
But the storyline doesn't end there, of course. With fifteen minutes left to play, Fabregas was brought off, with Fernando Torres on in his place. Cue the jokes and taunts -- almost immediately, el nino wasted a prime scoring opportunity. He sprung the offside trap and tore toward goal, but inexplicably hesitated, allowing Buffon the chance to tackle the ball off his feet. He also managed to chip the ball over an empty net in the 85th minute, meaning it's likely we'll see less of 'Nando and more of this false nine.
Surprisingly enough, the match wasn't marked by minute upon minute of diving, rolling, and heartfelt appeals to the referee. It was, however, littered with yellow cards: Spain picked up three and Italy earned four. One can only hope this means we see changes to the lineups in the other Group C matches.
Spain: Iker Casillas; Jordi Alba, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Alvaro Arbeloa; Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernandez; Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas (Fernando Torres 74), David Silva (Jesus Navas 57).
Italy: Gianluigi Buffon; Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele De Rossi; Emanuele Giaccherini, Thiago Motta (Antonio Nocerino 89), Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Christian Maggio; Antonio Cassano (Sebastian Giovinco 65), Mario Balotelli (Antonio Di Natale 57).
And there it is -- Spain have introduced a true striker. Or, at least, Fernando Torres. Cesc Fabregas, who scored the equaliser against Italy just minutes before, has made way in favor of the Chelsea forward. But will this be the Nando we've seen in the last few matches for the Blues, or will he be the joke everyone likes to make?
Well, he's already made his presence felt, speeding toward goal and rattling Gigi Buffon. The Italian goalkeeper went out to meet him, tackling Torres to prevent any further damage. Oh, Torres, that just answers our questions. "Torresy" is going to become a new adjective in the wider lexicon.
El nino has roughly fifteen more minutes to make an impact. But the Italians, who likely didn't even expect a point from this match, aren't going to make it easy on him.
For those wondering how long it would take for Spain to respond to Italy taking the lead through a goal by Antonio Di Natale, the answer is: less than three minutes. Cesc Fabregas stepped forward to prove that, despite not being a true striker, he can make the forward runs and he can score the goals. He easily skipped away from the inexperienced Emanuele Giaccherini to drive the ball straight into the back of the net.
As celebrations ensued, both sides took the opportunity to make a change. David Silva made way for Jesus Navas, showing that Vincente del Bosque clearly believes that Fabregas is enough and no strikers are needed. As for the azzurri, their change was predictable -- take off Antonio Cassano, put on Sebastian Giovinco. It's the forward partnership that has been drilled in training, so god forbid we keep Cassano and Di Natale on at the same time. It seems this adherence to a creed will likely come back to haunt Italy.
Circumstances have forced Italy into a change, with Cesare Prandelli bringing on Antonio Di Natale to replace Mario Balotelli. Less than three minutes later, that substitution paid off, as Toto gave Italy a 1-0 lead over title-holders Spain.
The ball came from who else but Andrea Pirlo, who set Di Natale free up the middle. The diminutive striker easily sped past Sergio Ramos to face Iker Casillas one on one. The Spanish keeper could do nothing as Toto easily looped the ball over his shoulder, sending it flying into the far corner of the net.
What now, Spain? A bit more pressure, perhaps? The introduction of Fernando Torres? You have to think there will be a response from la roja, who certainly don't want to start this tournament off on the wrong foot.
Spain look as though they just might want to score a goal in this half. They're coming further forward, putting themselves into more dangerous positions ... but then passing horizontally and backward. Andres Iniesta managed a decent attempt, coming in from a tight angle, but Daniele De Rossi did just enough to get a toe on the ball and force a corner. Perhaps DDR is not a true centre-back, but he's been one of the best on the pitch this evening.
The passing failed Spain soon after with Italy able to grab possession. Sergio Ramos attempted to regain control, but lost out when Mario Balotelli beat him in the air. Super Mario made a fatal mistake, however, wasting too much time and managing to miss his one on one against Iker Casillas, squandering possibly the best chance of the match.
Was it the wasted shot or the yellow card he's carrying that prompted Cesare Prandelli to remove Balotelli shortly thereafter? No matter, Antonio Di Natale has replaced him as Italy continue to search for a goal.
The second half between Italy and Spain has kicked off in Gdansk with no changes made for either side. How long with the score stay 0-0 before one of the sides has the guts to make a switch? Let's hope it's only 15 minutes.
Many tried to argue that the first half was actually rather nice, that it only lacked goals. I'd argue that it lacked an entire sense of direction. Italy, at least, attempted to get forward, although Mario Balotelli was lacking, and Antonio Cassano can't hit the target without a little support.
As for Spain, for goodness sake, give us a striker. This whole "play the ball around the midfield" thing is getting rather tiresome. Yes, they had a couple chances, but the azzurri have tested Iker Casillas much more than Spain have challenged Gigi Buffon. Bring on Fernando Torres!
Spain and Italy are keeping to the script stylistically, as both teams are a lot more concerned with keeping the ball than they are with attacking the goal, but it's been a better game than one might expect given those goals. There's been plenty of pretty passing and some decent shots from both teams, but but goalkeepers and defenses have been on their games early in a 0-0 stalemate.
Daniele De Rossi, best known for his usual exploits as a defensive midfielder, is playing as a central defender in Italy's back three and he's been the man of the match to this point. Without a true No. 9 to take advantage of the fact that he's not actually a defender, De Rossi has won every challenge he's entered. It's a brilliant tactic for Italy, actually. If your opponent is going to play an attacking midfielder at striker, why not play a defensive midfielder at center back?
Even though Spain could probably do with a center forward and Fernando Llorente could do a lot to change this game, Spain's problems aren't exactly due to a lack of a focal point in attack. The interchanging between the front three has been good, but David Silva have missed a couple of chances, while all of Italy's back three have played very well. Spain's biggest chance came just before the half, with Andres Iniesta putting a shot over the bar after setting himself up with a great first touch on a through ball.
Italy's biggest concern heading into the second half is probably going to be Mario Balotelli and what exactly they should do with him. He's been wasteful going forward and he already has a yellow card. They'd probably be well served asking Antonio Di Natale to warm up at halftime unless they want to end up with 10 men before the game is over. Interestingly enough, their best chance also came right at the end of the half, through their box-to-box midfielder. Antonio Cassano set it up with a great ball into the box for Thiago Motta, who forced a good save from Iker Casillas with his header.
Steven McManaman apparently thinks it's just fine for forwards to abuse goalkeepers inside the penalty area. Iker Casillas was "dilly-dallying", in Macca's words, and in that case, it's socially acceptable for Antonio Cassano to nick him across the ankle. That's what football is all about, yeah? None of this slow passing nonsense.
Then came a spell of pressure from Italy, with Cassno letting in a shot from the left side of the box. As Mario Balotelli chased the loose ball, Gerard Pique came across the Italian striker, tripping him up in a move that certainly looked as though it might have been a foul. Inside the area. But the day that SuperMario gets a foul called against him, well, that's worth an entire update on its own.
Italy are getting closer and closer, though. A gorgeous strike from Claudio Marchisio, thirty yards out, forced a save from Casillas. Oh, and Balotelli picked up a yellow. Collect your bets now.
It's been just over twenty minutes since Spain - Italy kicked off in Gdansk, and the azzurri have finally had a decent chance at goal. Claudio Marchisio played the ball in for Antonio Cassano, who managed to get behind the Spain defence. Alas, the Italian striker could do nothing but roll the ball across the face of goal, and no one was around to follow it in. Is it too early to ask for Sebastian Giovinco?
Soon after, a foul by Giorgio Chiellini lead to a free kick by Xavi, but the Italian defence was up to the challenge. In fact, they haven't really looked nervous yet. Perhaps Cesare Prandelli knew what he was doing when shifting to a three man back line?
Andres Iniesta made a decent attempt to encourage his team to threaten the goal, but Chiellini appeared as if from nowhere, rising up to get his head on the ball and stopping it from reaching the dangerous Xavi.
Whoopsies, Spain. Are you supposed to be letting Italy take all these free kicks? Are you unaware of the magic of Andrea Pirlo? If you keep allowing free kicks in those mystical "dangerous positions," the master is going to get the best of you. Pirlo's first was simple enough, with the roja wall jumping to let Iker Casillas easily collect the ball. The second was more threatening -- the distance was greater, but the shot curved beautifully, forcing Casillas to dive to beat the ball away.
And yes, it remains 0-0. Of course it's 0-0. Italy, at least, look as though they want to move the ball forward, but often they fail at the simplest moves. As for Spain, well, getting the ball toward Gigi Buffon's goal seems almost incidential. And then, when Cesc Fabregas finally does get forward, he gets called for offside.
Just a bit of data to make you happy: last time these two sides met, there was no goal in 120 minutes. YAY.
Update: at 9 minutes into the match between Italy and Spain, David Silva took a shot! That's right, the Spanish midfielder deviated from the plan (the plan is pass, pass, pass your opponent to death, by the way...or at least the commentators tell us so) and let his shot fly from the edge of the area. No repercussions for Silva, though, as he wasn't actually paying much attention to what he was doing. This time, he'll be forgiven for such cheek.
But then he did it again! Spain caught a bit of speed, with Cesc Fabregas tearing through the Italian midfield. Daniele De Rossi slid in, but Fabregas managed to get a pass to Andres Iniesta, who quickly slotted over to Silva. But goals are just so classless, aren't they? It's much better to send the ball straight into Gigi Buffon's hands. Otherwise this match just wouldn't be fair.
Gotta wait until the end to score, guys...
Spain and Italy have barely taken to the field in Gdansk and already I propose to removing some words, forever, from the football lexicon: False nine. Tiki taka. Match-fixing. Give me a few more minutes and i'm sure I'll add to this list.
Of course, the entire internet was abuzz for the hour before the match, discussing the interesting tactics that Vincente del Bosque and Cesare Prandelli elected to choose for this first match in Group C. Spain has decided to field no strikers, using Cesc Fabregas as that "False 9" we've heard so much about. Italy, meanwhile, have risked a back three, a formation they've never used in a competitive match.
The goal, for both sides, is to let the ball drift through the midfield for the maximum amount of time. Thus far, the strategy seems to be working, although both have wandered slightly too close to the edge of the area.
I think you're probably safe to go grab a drink, assemble a sandwich, brush your teeth...this game'll likely run on a loop for the next 60 minutes or so.
Come the end of the Euro 2012 match between Spain and Italy, there's a good chance that Cesare Prandelli will be branded as either a genius or an incompetent madman. He's selected a three-man defense for Italy, and his team is littered with guys who are either playing out of position or not currently first choice for their clubs. In the case of young left back Emanuele Giaccherini, he's picked a player who is both.
Italy Lineup (3-5-2): Gianluigi Buffon; Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele De Rossi; Emanuele Giaccherini, Thiago Motta, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, Christian Maggio; Antonio Cassano, Mario Balotelli
Kickoff is at 12 p.m. ET, 6 p.m. local time from Gdansk, Poland. You can catch the game on ESPN in the USA, BBC One in the UK and TSN in Canada.
In English-speaking footballing circles, 'Italian' is synonymous with 'defensive'. When Serie A matches end 0-0, Premier League-centric analysts feel comfortable proclaiming that the match was yet another 'typical boring Serie A' encounter. Italy conceded just two goals in their 2010 World Cup winning campaign. Stereotypical Catenaccio.
Italy conceded just two goals in qualifying, but their recent performances have been less encouraging, and it might be time to shake things up in the back. In their final tune-up friendly against Russia, the Italian defense was a shambles, conceding three goals.
It would be easy for Cesare Prandelli to just throw out the Juventus back line, claim that they won Serie A and that they have great chemistry, and absolve himself of any responsibility if Italy fail to progress to the quarterfinals at Euro 2012. He could probably get away with this without being roasted by the media, even the segments of the media that are not-so-subtly anti-Juventus. It's a reasonable thing to do, but it's also a cop-out.
Italy's most gifted central defender is also their least experienced. His name is Angelo Ogbonna, and he played for Torino in Serie B this season. He only has three caps for Italy and his only start in an azzurri shirt was in a 1-0 loss to the United States, but there wasn't a player on the pitch who was less at fault for that loss.
It's certainly a risky proposition, and Prandelli would be more or less putting his job on the line with that risk. If he picks Ogbonna and he struggles, Prandelli will probably be ripped to shreds for playing a Serie B player. But the potential reward of a great result against Spain is worth the risk. Ogbonna is the most naturally talented defender in the Italy team, save for perhaps Giorgio Chiellini, but Chiellini is an automatic starter at left central defense in a back three. Ogbonna would play next to him in the center, and he's a better matchup for Fernando Llorente or Fernando Torres than Leonardo Bonucci.
Ogbonna isn't likely to start, but Prandelli might start thinking about making changes in the future the first time Bonucci is turned by Torres or out-jumped by Llorente.
Spain vs. Italy is supposed to be a heavyweight match-up that is the highest of the highest levels off soccer. It's supposed to be played in the semifinals or finals and it is supposed to captivate the world. instead, it is a group stage match that looks like a mismatch. The world is upside down, or fixed.
Fixed, you say? That's partly why this match is looking like such a mismatch. A match fixing scandal in Italy has smacked the national team in its face and left it seeing stars, but not the good kind. Naturally, we must bet.
Lines: Spain, -1/2 (-125). Italy, +1/2 (+105).
Odds: Spain, -125. Italy, +350. Draw, +235.
Over/Under: Over 2, -115. Under 2, -105.
How Spain is only favored by half a goal and can still get -125 is incredible. The are the superior team even when Italy has all of their players, is fit and is in form. Against this Italy, rocked by scandal and not at full strength, they are heavy favorites, only the line doesn't show it. Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso will put the shackles on Sebastian Giovinco and Claudio Marchisio, leaving Andrea Pirlo without many options and Mario Balotelli to fight the Spain defense by himself. Unless Christian Maggio has a blinder and stretches Spain wide, they are going to be inept in the attack and Spain will take an easy win.
Almost as good of a bet as Spain is the under. Spain won all of the World Cup knockout stage match by a 1-0 scoreline and that was with David Villa. Without him, they have to rely on Fernando Torres. Good luck with that. The Spaniards will nick a goal then pass the ball around without threatening the goal until the final whistle goes and the under pays out.
Both Spain and Italy face similar problems going into their first Euro 2012 match, but the defending champions are much better equipped to overcome their difficulties.
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