Spain Vs. Italy: How Will La Roja Counter Andrea Pirlo?

Spain are not used to having to mark a specific player on any team that they play against. It's rare that they aren't dominant throughout their matches, and it's even more rare that their opponents pass in any manner other than hopeful hoofing or safely backwards. One of those rare matches was their Group C encounter with Italy, who took what Spain gave them and exploited their weaknesses en route to a goal.

Andrea Pirlo, arguably the best player at Euro 2012, provided the assist for Antonio Di Natale on that goal. In one move, Italy took advantage of two Spanish tactics (or lack thereof) that granted them the ability to create scoring opportunities: Their unwillingness to man-mark Pirlo and their high defensive line.

Like he has throughout the tournament, Pirlo started an attacking move that led to a goal with a brilliant long ball, which he was allowed to play because he wasn't closed down quickly. None of Spain's three central midfield players can be classified as a runner or Raul Meireles-style "annoyer", so this could be a problem again. If Vicente del Bosque doesn't have some sort of plan for denying Pirlo time and space on the ball, he's probably going to get burned again.

Germany responded to this thread by man-marking Pirlo with Toni Kroos, which minimized Pirlo's impact to start the semifinal. However, Cesare Prandelli had a great answer for that tactic, swapping the positions of Pirlo and Riccardo Montolivo briefly. Montolivo was unmarked when he played the long ball from deep that led to Mario Balotelli's second goal because of that swap. He doesn't hit long balls with the consistency of Pirlo, but having two players who are elite passers from deep areas presents a difficult problem for any opponent.

Of course, Spain are the better side and could render all of this irrelevant if they play their best game going forward, but Italy aren't exactly massive underdogs, thanks to the matchup problems that their two registas present, as well as the tactical astuteness of their manager. If del Bosque can't figure out how to account for Pirlo while outsmarting Prandelli, an upset could be on the cards.

We'll have features, news updates and live coverage of the match in our Spain vs. Italy, Euro 2012 StoryStream. For more on Euro 2012 and the entire world of football, follow @SBNationSoccer on Twitter.

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