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).