In their last seven games before they encountered Italy, Spain had scored 13 goals while only conceding once in a 2-1 win against Costa Rica. Their last loss came against the Netherlands in March of 2015. After that, they regained their identity, which had been tarnished by a disastrous World Cup campaign. They began again to dismantle teams effortlessly, England included. Then of course, they ran into Lorenzo Insigne and Italy.
Insigne began the match on the bench, but was brought on for Eder Martins in the 51st minute with both sides looking sterile, though Italy were the better side. A quarter of an hour later, the substitute broke the deadlock, snapping David de Gea's six-game unbeaten streak between the posts in the process. It happened like this:
From the right side of the halfway line, Alessandro Florenzi played the ball to Federico Bernardeschi, parked centrally a few yards above Spain's penalty box. Bernardeschi turned and passed left, feeding a scuttering Emanuele Giaccherini.
As Bernardeschi had opened to make that pass to Giaccherini, Insigne made a diagonal run, cutting into the middle of the area from the left side, his movement criss-crossing with the ball. Juanfran, the Spanish right-back, was forced to go with him momentarily, before circling back to pressure Giaccherini as he realized his flank was in danger. Gerard Pique had vacated his zone in order to step to Bernardeschi in midfield when the winger first received the ball, leaving the space beneath him open for Insigne to run into and forcing Juanfran to decide whether to take Insigne or Giaccherini. He tried to mark both, and failed.
Giaccherini one-touched a low cross into the box before Juanfran could recover. Insigne slid for the ball, touching it beyond de Gea and into the bottom right corner with Pique trailing impotently in his wake. Thus the impenetrable Spanish defense was broken.
The Napoli man celebrated by running towards the fans, making a heart shape with his hands. Then he patted the Italian crest, blew a short kiss, jumped and fist-pumped, before rounding out the routine by screaming in excitement as his teammates rushed to celebrate with him.
It was a celebration as multifarious as the player himself. Insigne is diminutive in stature but not in play. He was the first player in Europe this year to reach double figures in both goals and assists. He's scored 11 goals and assisted 10. On the list of top goalscorers in Serie A, he comes in 10th; though that placement is deceptive considering that the other four players directly above him also have 10 goals, with the next two on 12 and third and fourth tied at 14. Napoli teammate Gonzalo Higuain is alone at the mount with an insurmountable 29 goals.
In assists, Insigne is tied with Roma's Miralem Pjanic in first place. He's also created 55 chances this season and is second in total shots with 86.
If the numbers do nothing else, they show the sheer variety of Insigne's ability, and why he's been so vital to Napoli's stubborn title challenge. After scoring a meager two goals last season, he's began to fulfill his potential this time around. Much of the thanks has to go to Partenopei Maurizio Sarri, who has looked to maximize the winger's abilities rather than consign him to the left wing.
Coming inside, Insigne can drive the team. He's an adept passer, great at combination play -- hence his assist total and Higuan's goal haul -- and he's improved tremendously as a finisher. Not to mention that he works hard. Sarri understood this and gave Insigne the freedom to roam, moving Marek Hamsik into a deeper role to free up space for him to operate.
Insigne's powers were on full display after he made his entrance into the friendly against Spain. Even before that well-played goal, he had been a thorn in the side of the Spanish defense, forcing de Gea into several impressive saves. Barely eight minutes into his cameo, he tested the keeper's resolve: Giaccherini had the ball at the edge of the box on the left and Insigne was making a late run forward. He received the ball 18 yards out and then quickly opened his hips to fire a rasping shot to the bottom right corner. De Gea was equal to it.
A few minutes later, an Italian counterattack led to Giaccherini and Insigne combining once more. The Bologna man one-touched a high ball to Insigne, who had moved inside. Insigne turned upfield and drove the ball at the retreating Spanish defenders. As he reached the penalty area, the defenders collapsed on him and he in turn fed Florenzi in support to his left. Florenzi controlled and shot at the far post. De Gea was equal to that as well.
Even after he'd found the net, Insigne remained dangerous, sending a free kick just wide in the 74th minute. Then came the fun part. After receiving the ball from the top of the penalty box from Bernardeschi, with his back turned to goal, he took a touch, spun around and tried to chip de Gea in the blink of an eye. The Spanish keeper managed to claw it over the bar, but he had to stretch every limb in his body to do so.
A second half cameo is hardly enough to prove a player's quality, but this was just an extension of Insigne's season to date. And it's proven what was once merely a suspicion: that he's now Italy's best attacker. Antonio Candreva did well. Stephan El Shaarawy, who was on the bench, has rediscovered his form at Roma this year. Giacomo Bonaventura is carrying Milan on his own and Stefano Okaka, Graziano Pelle, Simone Zaza and Bernardeschi are all capable players. But Insigne stands head and shoulders above them all, and his performance against Spain was a validation of his ability rather than a surprise.
Antonio Conte has gone a long way in salvaging the identity and reputation of the national team. He's returned the stereotypically stingy defensive and much heralded fighting spirit. But for years, Italy has had a problem with their lack of an offensive spark. That's been a deciding factor in tight games. They can match the best teams in midfield but that means nothing if there's no one to break the deadlock or to unlock the opponent's defense.
Insigne is capable of that and more. The question before the game had been if he, given his previous history of being frozen out by Conte, would be even given the chance to contribute in a meaningful way this summer. Now it's clear that he has to be more than a mere contributor. He has the ability to be Italy's offensive star, and much be given the chance to fulfill that promise. Anything less is akin to self-harm for the Azzurri.